Published: 06:00, 12 June 2020
University bosses splashed almost a quarter-of-a-million pounds on Amazon vouchers in an effort to appease students affected by lecturers striking, it has emerged.
Third-year students at the cash-strapped University of Kent, who missed out on thousands of teaching hours at a critical time just before exams, were each offered £50 gift cards as a “gesture of goodwill”.
But those in their first and second years were not offered any tokens or form of reimbursement for their hefty tuition fees.
The Kent branch of the University and College Union (UCU) has this week blasted the institution for its handling of the voucher “stunt” and labelled the move a “blatant attempt to buy off students”.
Data obtained by a Freedom of Information (FOI) request shows the university saved £550,000 by freezing the wages of striking lecturers at the time of the industrial action.
It faced the risk of a costly lawsuit from fed-up students who signed up to a potential class action against the university, seeking reimbursement of their tuition fees.
But the university then spent a total of £237,925 on Amazon vouchers for final-year students to make amends for their cancelled lectures.
Almost 5,000 students were offered a £50 voucher and a code was automatically sent to each of those eligible - however, university bosses do not know how many were redeemed.
A UCU spokesman said: “The majority of students did not view the vouchers at all favourably and felt it was an insult to them.
“It seemed like a blatant attempt to buy off students following UCU’s industrial action. We did not believe it represented good use of taxpayers’ money and student’s fees, and we also opposed because of Amazon’s use of zero-hours contracts.
“UCU has a long running campaign to remove precarious employment in the education sector and beyond.
“We urged the university to use the money to increase funding to student hardship, welfare and employability.”
The UCU’s anger relates to industrial action in February and March 2018, when lecturers went on strike over pay.
A university spokesman said this week: “In 2018, we sent final year students a £50 Amazon voucher as a one-off gesture of goodwill following industrial action by a number of academic staff. The remainder of the salary savings from striking staff during this period was directed at student-focused activities and services as agreed with Kent Union.
“Final year students received these vouchers as they were the year most disrupted by the industrial action.”
The university was asked if it would consider buying Amazon vouchers again should lecturers go on strike, but it did not comment.
News of the voucher spending emerged as vice-chancellor Professor Karen Cox revealed last week how the university has already lost £13 million of income due to coronavirus.
'It seemed like a blatant attempt to buy off students...'
A drop in accommodation revenue, conference and catering profits have left a huge hole in its finances, which is only expected to get bigger.
Professor Cox warned of challenging times ahead, with forecasters predicting a shortfall of £20 million and £35 million come the end of the crisis.
The UCU says the financial woes “demonstrate the type of decision-making university leadership teams habitually make these days”.
“Decision-making has led to the sector currently facing serious financial challenges because of Covid-19,” they added.
“University leaders focus on competing with each other for students rather than presenting a united front to government in the face of this crisis.”
Further strikes last year also saw students miss out on key lectures before exams.