Published: 12:01, 08 January 2021
| Updated: 16:19, 08 January 2021
Thousands of Kent students are calling for tuition fees to be lowered as they are forced to once again study remotely due to the pandemic.
They have signed a petition calling for the Government to help reduce university fees from £9,250 to £3,000 - as lockdown rules mean the majority of students will be learning online until at least mid-February.
It has already garnered more than 500,000 signatures, with Canterbury among areas with the highest number of signatories.
Home to three universities, the city has been left especially empty during the lockdown as many of its tens of thousands of students remain in their hometowns.
Louis Eaves, a second-year religion, philosophy and ethics student at Canterbury Christ Church University, says it is "ridiculous" students are being charged full price for their courses.
CCCU says its students must still pay full fees, although it is offering a rebate on rent to those who are unable to stay in their university-owned accommodation due to the lockdown.
Louis, 19, said: "While we understand that we still need to pay for the tuition we still get, we believe that being forced to pay the full amount is unfair.
"I understand the Government has been giving out money and reductions in lots of other areas, so they are stretched as it is.
"But it's like they're using students as a way of recouping their losses.
"Students are universally known for being among the poorest in society, and yet they're the ones who are basically having to refund the country. And it shouldn't be that way."
Louis says he feels students have been treated as "an afterthought" since Boris Johnson failed to mention universities when he announced the roll-out of a third lockdown on Monday.
"It feels like the Government has basically washed their hands of us," he said. "They've made concessions for GCSEs and A-levels by cancelling exams, but we've been given nothing."
Louis says he feels his £9,250-a-year is being charged to "basically get a degree through Microsoft Teams and Powerpoint".
"We shouldn't be paying a full amount of money for facilities we can't use," he said.
He says the Government must now step in to help universities reduce fees.
"Universities can't do much themselves," he said. "They're still businesses, and have still got to pay their staff, along with rent or mortgages for buildings. They need support from the Government."
He says that while his university has been "extremely helpful" in supporting students through the difficult time, remote learning is already causing additional pressures.
"There are five students living in my house, and it became really difficult," he said. "Our internet wasn't strong enough to all watch lectures at the same time.
"Then there's digital poverty; a lot of people won't have access to laptops and stable internet connections. And learning from home is also impacting students' mental health."
He added that many students are struggling to make ends meet as the pandemic has left many without part-time work.
Kelly Bellerson, a final-year journalism student at Canterbury Christ Church, agrees it has been a "difficult" year for those at university.
"Usually my course is quite heavily based on campus, but I haven't seen my lecturers once in person at all this semester," she said.
"It's been really challenging. It hasn't been a proper year of learning."
Meanwhile Rebecca Gerrish, a first-year University of York student from Wateringbury, said: "It felt like we were left out of the whole [lockdown] announcement, with no reassurance as to whether we'll have extra lenience with exams or assessments.
"It's almost like we're meant to carry on the same, whilst everyone else is getting readjustments.
"I think an explicit reduction in workload and pressure would be appreciated by the majority of students, as well as a reduction of accommodation and tuition fees, since we're currently paying anywhere up to £20,000 for a uni experience that we're not getting."
Responding to the national petition, a spokesman for the Department for Education said: “We understand this has been a very difficult time for students, which is why we have prioritised their education and wellbeing from the start of this pandemic.
“Universities are responsible for their fees, but the Government has been clear if universities want to continue charging the maximum amount permitted, they are expected to maintain quality and academic standards and the quantity of tuition should not drop.
"They should seek to ensure all students, regardless of their background, can access their studies remotely.
“We know it has been a challenging period for the sector which is why we introduced financial support last year, including bringing forward over £2bn worth of tuition fee payments and making £280m available for research through grant funding.”
Canterbury Christ Church University says that as it continues to support students in their studies, "there is no reduction to the published tuition fees for any year group".
The university does add, however: "We will review our position if the Government changes its approach to tuition fees."
It is also set to provide a rebate to students who should be staying in university-owned accommodation but are unable to due to the lockdown. "We will communicate details to our students soon," a spokesman added.
Solicitor Graham Jones, a family and education specialist at Whitehead Monkton in Maidstone, says he feels universities are unlikely to provide a discount to students.
"It is sort of unfair that you're paying £9,000 a year not to be able to experience the full university experience, but that is a contract between you and your university," he said.
"And I don't think universities are going to be particularly keen on allowing any form of discount at all, because they still need to pay their lecturers.
"So it's an unfortunate situation for university students."
To view the petition, click here.