British universities that are not returning to face-to-face teaching should not charge the full fees, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said on Tuesday.
As all COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted in England and most such curbs have been scrapped in Scotland and Wales, the government has advised universities to bring back face-to-face lectures and lessons, but some top universities have refused to do so.
Of the 24 universities in the elite Russell Group, 20 will keep a proportion of undergraduate teaching online this autumn, according to The Sunday Times. Some of these institutions will require students to socially distance and to wear masks on campus. Some may require students to get both doses of a COVID-19 vaccine before they are allowed to attend social events, the paper said.
Talking to Sky News on Tuesday morning, Williamson said the government expects all universities to be moving back to face-to-face teaching.
“Universities are autonomous institutions,” he said. “Our guidance is clear, our direction is clear, and we do expect all universities, unless there’s unprecedented reasons, to be moving back to the situation of actually delivering lessons, lectures, face-to-face.”
Asked if refunds should be given if that is not the case, Williamson said, “Universities have got to stand up their offers to their students.”
He said the government will give the Office for Students “all the power, all the backing, in order to pursue those universities that aren’t delivering enough for students that are paying their fees.”
“I think if universities are not delivering, not delivering what students expect, then actually they shouldn’t be charging the full fees,” he said.
In an interview with LBC radio, the education secretary said the government has “asked the Office for Students to do everything they can do in order to put pressures on universities in order to be able to welcome students back into the lecture theatre and not just the into the tutorial classroom.”
Students at Manchester, Leeds, and Liverpool have launched petitions demanding fee refunds if “normality in terms of teaching” is not resumed, according to The Sunday Times.
Lord Baker of Dorking, the former Conservative education secretary, told the paper that the universities’ stance was “outrageous.”
“Pubs, cinemas, theatres, and football matches have all opened without restrictions,” he said. “What’s different about universities?”
PA contributed to this report.