Full time masters students have missed a significant amount of our degree courses due to the four weeks of UCU strike action. Depending how weekly timetables aligned with strike action, some students have missed almost the entirety of four weeks taught sessions. Most modules have covered only the first introductory weeks, and are now left with only a couple of sessions post-strike. Continued ‘work-to-rule’ action understandably carried out by UCU is compounding this impact, as is the decision taken in some modules to resume teaching as scheduled with no consideration to missed content. This has decimated the learning experience of Semester 2, and whilst I hope the effect on academic progression will be minimised, the detriment to our overall experience at masters level has been substantial.
In this post I will set out two actions that should have an impact; cancelling direct debits for tuition fee payments, and following your university’s formal complaint procedures. I fully support the staff that are striking, and applying this pressure to the university management surely supports their cause. I know many lecturers have encouraged students to complain to university management since the strikes began, so even if you can’t be bothered cancelling your direct debit or even making an official complaint, please support the staff that work to support you by emailing that address and making your feelings known.
University of Manchester students: This is an improved version of a post I made in the excellent ‘Take Action! UoM‘ Facebook group this morning. They have loads of great material, including templates to apply for mitigating circumstances for this semester’s assigned work. They are holding a meeting this Thursday at 6pm, Squirrels Bar, Owen’s Park Campus, Fallowfield. There is also a dedicated group for those intending to withhold their final instalment that has been started today, who have been kind enough to add me as a group admin.
Whilst undergraduates cannot withhold tuition fee payments made directly to the university from student finance, they can still take advantage of the official complaints procedure, so please encourage any undergraduate housemates etc to do so. I intend to write a follow up post aimed at undergraduates soon.
Withholding tuition fee payments until UCU strike compensation is agreed
As postgraduates, we are in a stronger position than most students as we pay our tuition fees directly. We can both withhold the final tuition fee instalment until an agreement is reached, and pursue formal complaints, with the option to refer each individual complaint to the Ombudsman service should your university not resolve the matter to your satisfaction. Universities Minister Sam Gyimah has repeated yesterday he expects all universities to compensate students, but Manchester are among the majority, as yet, refusing to entertain the idea of compensation.
In view of this, I encourage you all to cancel your university’s direct debit authorisation to collect tuition fees from your bank account. You can do this in under a minute from your online banking, or alternatively visit or call your bank. (If you can’t figure it out, Google “cancel direct debit HSBC” substituting your own banks name) This will prevent your university collecting the final instalment due in May. Your university will be notified you have done this. If their payment system shows a significant proportion of postgraduates have revoked their direct debit authorisation they may be more inclined to address the situation. Naturally, you are in stronger position to negotiate UCU strike compensation if the university is demanding money from you, rather than you from them.
The ambition would be to withhold the final payment until an agreement can be made regarding UCU strike compensation. For most UoM students, this amount is £3,000. Payment may be made at a later date depending on the terms of such an agreement.
Cancelling your direct debit DOES NOT place you, or your degree, at risk.
You will receive an automated email from your university a week or so after cancelling the direct debit, asking you to reinstate the direct debit. The email states if you do not do this, or pay the final £3,000 by some other means by 10th May 2018, a £25 late payment charge will be added to the £3,000. I would hope the matter is resolved by that date, however if not, the charge is both insignificant against the tuition fee amount, and would hopefully be waived as part of whatever compensatory deal is eventually agreed.
You will however likely need to have paid any outstanding tuition fee debt to graduate, however with UoM graduation set for 10-14 December, I’d hope the situation is resolved well before that point. As long as you keep the tuition fee money available to be paid if required, there is no risk to your graduation or academic progression. You cannot incur any penalty for cancelling your direct debit and making your intention to withhold payment know. After the payment becomes overdue, May 10th for UoM students, the only action your university can attempt to impose punitive charges as mentioned above. They cannot affect your credit record or send bailiffs out. This would require court action, which cannot take place without months or years of ignored payment demands and warnings.
The email above states that continued failure to pay past this date “may lead to your account being referred to the University Credit Control section for immediate payment.” Don’t worry about this, it simply means a different office within UoM will start emailing you, this is not a debt collection agency. Once you have made an official complaint, the account should be ‘frozen’ until the complaint has been resolved.
Pursuing UCU strike compensation using your universities formal complaint procedures
Submitting an official complaint requires your university to either resolve the matter to your satisfaction, or provide a ‘Completion of Procedures’ letter which allows you to refer your case to the Ombudsman service. I have been successful using this framework in the past, I disputed a debt of around £2,800 with my previous university for years before finally getting it dropped in November 2017 around four months after making an official complaint with threat of Ombudsman escalation. The official complaints procedure is a very powerful tool when acting individually, and a significant number of official complaints would surely have a massive impact.
The section below references the University of Manchester’s complaints procedure, but is likely very similar to the complaints process at all universities affected by UCU strike action.
The complaints procedure outlined above looks daunting, but in reality, you just need to complete a complaint form and submit it to the correct faculty officer listed here. UoM publish a “basic guide to student complaints” which makes the process fairly easy to understand, and if you’re feeling brave you can take on the full fat “Complaints Procedure (Student) (Regulation XVIII)” and see what you make of it. The students union also have their own guide to the complaint process.
Your university cannot simply dismiss your complaint. Your complaint will set out both the grounds for your complaint, and what action you demand from your university to resolve it. At each stage, your university can offer to meet your demands, offer another resolution, or decline to act, but you must then accept or reject their response. If your university does not offer a response you are happy with, decline it. Your complaint will then progress through the complaints procedures. If you are not satisfied with the response offered after these procedures are exhausted, your university is legally obligated to provide a ‘Completion of Procedures‘ letter, also known as a deadlock letter. This allows you to refer the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (read: Education Ombudsman) at no cost to yourself. They will investigate and your university is obligated to uphold their decision.
It may be best to wait until the full impact of the UCU industrial action is known before submitting a formal complaint. However, the threat of such a large volume of complaints should have an impact. Therefore in the meantime, I again encourage you to cancel your university’s direct debit from your online banking, revoking their permission to take money from your account. Email your Vice Chancellor to make your intentions to both withhold payment and exhaust formal complaint procedures known. UoM students, this is both email@example.com & firstname.lastname@example.org. Also email your head of school, and any other university management you feel is relevant.
Enjoy your day.