Several Irish universities, including University College Dublin (UCD), have ruled out fee reductions for students this Autumn semester despite fundamental changes in how courses will be delivered as a result of COVID-19 disruptions. Movements to ‘blended learning’ with drastic reductions in on-campus interactions and in some cases completely online learning experiences will be the prevailing norm for incoming students, with a UCD spokesperson admitting in The Irish Times that “inevitably the use of online learning platforms will form an important part of classes for the coming trimester and the university is currently preparing plans on how classes will be delivered”.

This revelation comes in the wake of the ‘Students for Fee Compensation’ movement and frustration amongst students at the refusal by UCD authorities to consider compensation or tuition fee rebates for the “changes in delivery” that occurred during the Spring trimester with the University citing that “educational outcomes” will still be achieved as the rationale for its refusal.

Responding to whether there had been any engagement with UCD on the issue of tuition fee reductions for the upcoming academic year, Conor Anderson, President of UCD Students’ Union, said that “there has been no conversation around the possibility of reducing fees, at least that I have been privy to”. As a result, “no reasons have been given” by UCD for either refusing or granting fee reductions, but Anderson stated that in “a meeting with senior management in mid-May as a representative of a group of students calling for compensation on their fees, the reasoning I was given was that no compensation is owed because all educational outcomes will be achieved”. He said that “I was told that UCD does not market an experience, it markets an education. A cursory look at UCD’s marketing materials tells a different story, but that is what I was told”.

Asked why UCD should offer tuition fee reductions, Anderson was of the opinion that “UCD should offer reductions on fees for the same reason it should offer compensation on fees already paid: the educational experience has been negatively impacted by Covid-19. At the moment, fees are slated to increase, in some schools by about 4%”. Speaking on the importance of campus engagement, he added that “on-campus learning is incredibly important, it is the heart and soul of university education, and the fees charged should reflect that”.

Speaking to The College Tribune, Richard Boyd Barrett TD (Solidarity-People Before Profit) also expressed his opposition to the universities’ stance in saying that “it’s completely unacceptable that if live contact hours with teachers are going to be reduced, that the existing registration fees should remain – they should be cut and cut significantly. Although I’d prefer them to be abolished completely”. Asked what role the incoming government has in reversing this decision, Mr. Barrett said that “the new Minister [Minister for Higher Education, Innovation and Research Simon Harris] should instruct the universities to reduce or abolish registration fees, particularly because of this new situation and the fact that people will be forced into a blended learning situation as a result of the public health crisis”. Addressing students directly, he “would encourage students to make their voices heard and put pressure on the Minister to make these demands”.

Calls to reduce tuition fees and for a wider debate on university funding and access have grown in recent weeks with President of the Union of Students in Ireland, Lorna Fitzpatrick voicing her concerns on RTÉ. Ms. Fitzpatrick stated that “at the moment for undergraduate fees we have the highest fees in the EU at €3,000, and for postgraduate fees you’re looking at anything from €4,000 with many paying €7000-9,000” and that “I don’t think students should be forced to pay the same amount for what is going to be a very different experience. The simple answer is we should be reducing the cost to students to accessing education”.

This morning, The College Tribune received a comment from UCD University Relations in response to questions of whether the university intends to reduce fees for the upcoming academic year. Referring to the “at-distance teaching and assessment” that took place from March 23rd, the spokesperson said: “The university continues to provide the best academic experience under the circumstances and is delivering on the requirements of its programmes. No compensation or tuition fee rebates for the changes in delivery are being made.” As this was referring to the past spring trimester, it is still unclear at this time whether this will be the exact position taken by the university for the upcoming autumn trimester.

Rowan Kelleher – Reporter