Universities in England should consider making partial refunds of tuition fees if students have their courses interrupted by strikes taking place on campuses this week, the student watchdog has said.
Nicola Dandridge, the head of the Office for Students, the higher education regulator in England, said universities affected by the industrial action would need to make up for any disruption.
“Universities are subject to consumer protection law, and they should consider how they will make up for any disruption caused by industrial action,” Dandridge said. “This might include rescheduling any teaching which is missed, delivering course topics in a different way or considering whether partial refunds of tuition fees are appropriate. Students should not be disadvantaged academically because of any disruption.”
Picket lines sprang up at 58 universities on Wednesday morning at the start of a three-day walkout by members of the University and College Union, after dual strike ballots over proposed pension cuts, and pay and working conditions.
Staff at 33 institutions are taking action over both disputes, four are striking over pensions alone and 21 are striking over pay and working conditions. UCU members at six other universities backed actions short of a strike, including working to contract.
The union’s members include technicians, academic administrators, librarians and researchers, alongside lecturers and teachers.
UCU says employers, represented by Universities UK and the University and Colleges Employers Association, have refused to withdraw pension cuts and address falling pay and worsening working conditions such as the use of prolonged short-term contracts for teaching staff.
Jo Grady, the UCU’s general secretary, said: “It is deeply regrettable that staff have been forced into taking industrial action again. Sadly, university bosses have shown little interest in negotiating in good faith and addressing the serious concerns of staff over falling pay, massive pension cuts, equality pay gaps and the rampant use of insecure contracts.
“The truth is that staff are asking for the bare minimum in a sector awash with money. But the only time vice-chancellors seem to listen is when staff take action, and those leading our universities should not underestimate their determination to change this sector for the better.”
A group of student activists called the Red Square Movement blockaded the offices of Universities UK on Wednesday in support of the strike.
The National Union of Students offered its support by advising students not to cross picket lines.
The strikes are likely to affect more than a million undergraduate and postgraduate students in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and more than 100,000 enrolled with the Open University.
Dandridge said she was “extremely concerned” about the potential impact of the strikes on students. “Students have endured an exceptionally difficult time. It cannot be right that they face further disruption, and we would urge the employers and trade unions to work quickly so that any industrial dispute does not materially affect students.”