Can Kent afford to reimburse students?

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of InQuire Media

Image courtesy of Colin Watts on Unsplash

Clarification: The estimations made in this article are the author’s own and not accurate representations of amounts required to compensate students.

Higher Education has experienced several serious crises over the past year. Plagued with UCU’s lecturer strikes, Covid-19 and pension alterations, universities are facing increasing strain.

Forced into campus shutdowns and service cutbacks, students nationwide are demanding compensation for lost tuition. They are supported by figures like Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, who stated in March that students have ‘a moral and legal right to recompense.’ Although initially Kent avoided refunds, as of September, “goodwill payments” are being offered to around 7,500 students affected by industrial action. Compensation ranges from £40-£130, depending on academic year and what the University deems the severity of your situation. Kent employed this scheme on a smaller scale in 2018, when finalist students were given a £50 Amazon voucher as a “one-off gesture of goodwill”. This previous attempt was deemed by a UCU spokesperson as “a blatant attempt to buy off students” and the 2020 effort has received similar criticisms. Finalist student Bill Bowkett labelled the payments a “kick in the teeth”, arguing that although he enjoyed his degree “it certainly wasn’t value for money” and Kent falls short compared to other universities. To understand whether Kent could afford rebates, we must estimate how much they owe. Estimating this for an individual student is simple: tuition missed multiplied by cost of a class hour. However, each student was affected differently and for our purpose we should calculate general averages.

In total, according to Kent, there were 22 days of industrial action (8 in the Autumn; 14 in the Spring). But the amount of contact hours varies for each student. For an average, we can take the class time per week (Humanities and Social Sciences: 8; Sciences: 37.5) and divide it down to per day (Humanities and Social Sciences: 1.6 hours; Sciences 7.5 hours). Then by multiplying for the 22 days, we get 35.2 hours for Humanities and Social Sciences and 165 hours for Science. If we divide one year’s tuition (£9,250) by the average total number of class hours in one year (Humanities and Social Sciences: roughly 240; Science: roughly 1,050 hours), it results in £44 per class hour for Humanities and Social Sciences and £9.10 for Sciences. We must then multiple these equated prices by the hours missed, resulting in £1548.8 for Humanities and Social Sciences and £1501.5 for Science. Then one final mean average gives us the sum of £1525.15.

This amount, if it were given to the 7,500 eligible students, would amount in a total of roughly £11.5 million. This number is exponentially higher than the current repayment scheme, estimated to be returning between £300,000-£975,000. When comparing the £11.5 million to the £163.5 million that Kent generated from tuition in 2018/19, it can be easy to assume Kent can afford refunds. In actuality, the University is facing serious financial crises which make the current scheme seem generous.

In the latest available finance report from 2018/19, Kent was already facing an initial deficit of near £8 million, with a total underlying expenditure of £274 million against a revenue of £266.4 million. This was built upon by several expenses such as reconstruction costs and alterations to pensions. This resulted in a total deficit of £60.1 million, taking Kent into 2019/20 with significant debts.

Although the 2019/20 financial reports were meant to published in August, they remain undisclosed, but without them we know that Kent faces cutbacks. Kent may no longer struggle with pensions, but already Vice-Chancellor Karen Cox mentioned to Kent Online in June that ‘£13 million’ in income has been lost from Covid-19 and debts will only increase as accommodation and catering services, which brought in near £40 million in 2018/19, remain limited. From 2016-2019, international students made up 14% of Kent’s student populace and their absence could lose Kent 1/3 of student income.

The best way for universities to save will be making staff redundancies. Staff costs were £158.5m in 2018/19 and Kent is already making cuts, with plans to axe 150 full-time staff between 2020-2024 announced in July. Actions like these, alongside Cox’s voluntary £55k pay cut, demonstrate that Kent is downsizing significantly in anticipation of increasing pressures, including the long-term investments like the School of Economics’ £7.5 million Kennedy Building.

With such high debts, it is surprising that Kent is offering £1 million in compensation at all. Although students and HE official alike press for further compensation, it seems to me that Kent is unlikely to give out anything until it balances out and even then, returns will be nowhere near the £11.5 million figure that students feel owed.

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