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MPs on parliament’s petitions committee argued against blanket fee refunds earlier this year (PA)

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The Department for Education is at odds with universities over who should be responsible for refunding unhappy students paying full fees for online-only tuition.

Many institutions have been forced to move all their learning online following confirmed cases of coronavirus on campus, despite promises of “blended learning” and millions spent on making classrooms Covid-safe.

This move to digital learning has led to many students calling for a reduction to their £9,250-a-year fees, citing reduced quality of learning and the increased costs associated with online classes.

“We are owed a refund because the product is not up to scratch. Clearly, virtual teaching is not up to much otherwise surely it would have been instituted years ago,” said Samuel Hall, a third year history and politics student at Aberystwyth University.

“Refunds would help poorer students with the tech support that’s needed. I’m financially fine but if, worst case scenario, my phone and laptop gave up in the same week, I would effectively be excluded from my learning.”

A government spokesperson insisted that complaints should be taken up with providers first, with any unresolved disputes going to the Office for the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) for higher education.

But the National Union for Students (NUS) and the University and Colleges Union (UCU) claim the government needs to step in, as cash-strapped universities can’t afford to lose any more fee income.

The lack of clarity comes as thousands of students across the UK are confined to their accommodation as 32 universities report coronavirus cases on campus. 

Around 1,700 Manchester Metropolitan University students have been told they cannot leave their halls even if they have no symptoms, while a further 1,200 have been told to self-isolate at Glasgow University.

The Department of Education said universities are “autonomous” and have an “established process in place for students with concerns about their education”, with any unresolved concerns taken up with the OIA. 

Over 100 complaints related to coronavirus have been received by the OIA so far, the body claimed, but it warned that many of these had been sent “prematurely” as the complainant hadn’t completed an internal complaints process. 

But Labour MP Rachael Maskell, whose constituency houses two leading universities, says the government should take responsibility for the reimbursement of students.

“[York’s universities] need government backing, as core funding for universities is clearly challenged already,” she said.

“I believe this latest situation demonstrates how the funding structure is broken and why Labour’s manifesto commitment to scrap tuition fees would have resulted in this situation not arising. The government therefore must step in and support universities.”

NUS president Larissa Kennedy, meanwhile, agreed that universities may struggle to issue refunds without backing from the government. 

She said: “The year ahead is only going to bring more upheaval in higher education and flexibility is now crucial; students should be able to leave rental contracts at their university accommodation and receive rent rebates so that they can remain at home if they wish to.”

“If their quality of learning is severely impacted then we also need to see tuition fees reimbursed.”

Ms Kennedy added: “Student finances have taken a real hit over the past few months and the government must step in so that they are not further penalised by its disastrous mishandling of the pandemic.”

Fellow Labour MP Paul Blomfield, meanwhile, suggested discussions of reimbursement may be premature. He told PoliticsHome: “I think the most important issue is to take the action needed to minimise transmission and maximise the learning experience. We should see how that works out before making decisions on fee reductions.”

He added: “If we do need to consider compensation I think we should be looking at a reduction of student debt, rather than a fee cut now, to avoid making a difficult situation worse by reducing the funds universities need to maintain teaching and research.”

MPs on parliament’s petitions committee argued against blanket fee refunds earlier this year, but did back calls for the government to support universities to reimburse students in some cases.

Chair of the committee, Labour MP Catherine McKinnell, said: “Despite the hard work of lecturers and support staff, some universities have been unable to provide courses in a way that students feel is good value for money. 

“Therefore, while we do not consider that a blanket refund for all students is necessarily required, we believe that the government has a role in ensuring any student whose university experience has fallen short is compensated.”

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Murkowski to back Barrett for Supreme Court, despite opposing GOP process


Sen. Lisa Murkowski will vote to confirm Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, despite her opposition to moving forward in an election year.

The Alaska Republican said Saturday she will split her votes on Barrett. She will vote against a procedural hurdle on Sunday to advance her nomination over a filibuster, due to her longstanding objection to confirming a justice so close to the Nov. 3 presidential election.

But based on the merits of Barrett’s credentials for the job, she’s a ‘yes.’

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Tension Has Escalated Between Tory MPs And Marcus Rashford Ahead Of A Vote On Free School Meals

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Tories must face up to their “conscience” today on a vote on extending free school meals over the holidays, Labour has claimed, as footballer and anti-poverty campaigner Marcus Rashford ramped up the pressure on politicians to back it.

The challenge from shadow children’s minister Tulip Siddiq came after another difficult morning for the government as Manchester United star Rashford said he was “paying close attention” to the vote and then got into a Twitter spat with Tory MP Steve Baker over who has the power to introduce the free meals.

Moments later Tory backbencher Anne Marie Morris, MP for Newton Abbot in Devon, broke ranks to say she would be supporting Labour’s motion on extending the free school meals until next Easter. Education select committee chair Conservavtive Robert Halfon has urged the government to work with Rashford.

When asked at Prime Minister’s Questions to back the proposal by Labour, Boris Johnson said the government wanted to use the benefits system to support children in the hoildays.

“I want to make sure we continue to support families thoughout the crisis so they have the cash available to feed their kids as they need to do,” he said. 

Earlier this week government minister Nadhim Zahawi has said that struggling families can claim Universal Credit and that many parents do not like being labelled as being on ‘free school meals’ instead preferring to pay a modest sum of money to a holiday club to provide food.

Siddiq told PoliticsHome: “A lot of the Tories, Don Valley, Bishop Aukland and places like that they’re all a little bit worried. It’s the kind of thing that can be used against them in their patches.

“Even if they don’t walk through the lobbies with us tonight that they put a lot of pressure on the prime minister. And that’s how it happened last time.

“I know it’s not easy to break the whip but some votes are a matter of conscience and this is one of them.

“We’re going to be facing the toughest winter of a generation, there’s coronavirus, the end of the furlough scheme – children are in for a tough ride. Why can’t we just do one last thing for parents so they don’t have to worry?”

She said some Tories she had spoken to directly in Parliament on Tuesday were sympathetic to the issue but they did not want to break the whip.

The vouchers were introduced for the poorest families in August after significant pressure from Rashford. The England striker said today that the situation for children is now worse than in the summer.

The vote at 7pm is on a Labour motion calling on the government to continue directly funding free school meals over the holidays until Easter 2021. They say it would prevent a million children going hungry.

Rashford tweeted that he was paying close attention to the Commons today and to those who are willing to “turn a blind eye” to the needs of our most vulnerable children.

He wrote: “2.2M of them who currently qualify for Free School Meals. 42% newly registered. Not to mention the 1.5M children who currently don’t qualify.”

He then got into an disagreement with MP Steve Baker who said Rashford was the one with all the power to make the change on free school meals because he has more Twitter followers that he does, despite Baker being a politician for the ruling Conservative party.

Baker said instead Universal Credit could be boosted to try and help families..

Morris, who was elected in 2010 said that she would vote against her own party tonight because of the economic fall out for people in her constituency.

She tweeted: “The ongoing pandemic has had a heavy impact on many across Teignbridge, bringing with it significant economic difficulties for many. This is why I am supporting the motion calling for the continuation of direct funding for FSM over school holidays until Easter 2021.

“This time-limited measure is a perfectly sensible response as we deal with the economic consequences of Covid-19. Longer-term I believe it is right that those eligible should be supported through the Holidays & Activities Food Programme and the Universal Credit system.”

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Trump comment on ‘blowing up’ Nile Dam angers Ethiopia

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image copyrightReuters

image captionThe dam will be the biggest hydro-electric project in Africa

Ethiopia’s prime minister has said his country “will not cave in to aggressions of any kind” after President Donald Trump suggested Egypt could destroy a controversial Nile dam.

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is at the centre of a long-running dispute involving Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan.

Mr Trump said Egypt would not be able to live with the dam and might “blow up” the construction.

Ethiopia sees the US as siding with Egypt in the dispute.

The US announced in September that it would cut some aid to Ethiopia after it began filling the reservoir behind the dam in July.

Why is the dam disputed?

Egypt relies for the bulk of its water needs on the Nile and is concerned supplies could be cut off and its economy undermined as Ethiopia takes control of the flow of Africa’s longest river.

Once complete, the $4bn (£3bn) structure on the Blue Nile in western Ethiopia will be Africa’s largest hydro-electric project.

The speed with which Ethiopia fills up the dam will govern how severely Egypt is affected – the slower the better as far as Cairo is concerned. That process is expected to take several years.

  • Who owns the River Nile – and why it matters

  • Egypt fumes as Ethiopia celebrates over Nile dam
  • How the Nile’s mega dam will be filled

Sudan, further upstream than Egypt, is also concerned about water shortages.

Ethiopia, which announced the start of construction in 2011, says it needs the dam for its economic development.

Negotiations between the three countries were being chaired by the US, but are now overseen by the African Union.

What did the Ethiopian PM say?

PM Abiy Ahmed did not address Mr Trump’s remarks directly, but there appears to be little doubt what prompted his robust comments.

Ethiopians would finish the dam, he vowed.

“Ethiopia will not cave in to aggression of any kind,” he said. “Ethiopians have never kneeled to obey their enemies, but to respect their friends. We won’t do it today and in the future.”

Threats of any kind over the issue were “misguided, unproductive and clear violations of international law”.

image copyrightReuters
image captionSudan is worried too – the Blue and White Niles meet in Khartoum

Why did Trump get involved?

The president was on the phone to Sudan’s Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and Israel’s PM Benjamin Netanyahu in front of reporters at the White House on Friday.

The occasion was Israel and Sudan’s decision to agree diplomatic relations in a move choreographed by the US.

The subject of the dam came up and Mr Trump and Mr Hamdok expressed hopes for a peaceful resolution to the dispute.

But Mr Trump also said “it’s a very dangerous situation because Egypt is not going to be able to live that way”.

He continued: “And I said it and I say it loud and clear – they’ll blow up that dam. And they have to do something.”

image copyrightReuters
image captionThe dam came up in a phone call with Sudan’s prime minister

What is the state of the negotiations?

Mr Abiy maintains that the negotiations have made more progress since the African Union began mediation.

But there are fears that Ethiopia’s decision to start filling the reservoir could overshadow hopes of resolving key areas, such what happens during a drought and how to resolve future disputes.

Related Topics

  • Nile

  • Sudan
  • Donald Trump
  • Egypt
  • Ethiopia

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