The educational body concerned is St Mary’s University at Twickenham, where a figure familiar to those who study the machinations of HMRC has rocked up as Interim Vice Chancellor. Dave Hartnett (for it is he) may be well past retirement age, but is keeping busy, and on March 24 put out a YouTube video with an unequivocal message.
“The Prime Minister’s announcement last night, about the need for all but key workers to stay at home to prevent the spread of Covid-19, will have a profound impact on St Mary’s for the coming weeks. In the light of this, we will be moving all non-essential services online … Put simply, we want to protect our students and staff from Covid-19 and limit risks to health on campus”. So what were those in student accommodation to do?
“For those students currently remaining in University accommodation, Public Health England have advised us that you should go home, if you can safely do so. We will be in touch shortly with those who cannot leave, to explain how we will support you over the coming days and weeks. The only staff who should now be working on site are a small number of colleagues in Estates and Campus Services”.
That’s unambiguous: all students who could go home were told that they should do so. So they would, one has to assume, have vacated their student accommodation. Following from that is the clear corollary that the cost of that accommodation would no longer have been charged to those students. My information suggests that may not have happened.
I am informed that students who went home from St Mary’s Twickenham were charged for their accommodation up to and including April 8. That is the Wednesday before Easter, so perhaps it was the end of term. In any case, if students were billed up to that date, then they were charged for two weeks when they were not there - and were not there on the explicit advice of their Interim Vice Chancellor. So what’s the damage?
For those in well-paid jobs, this might appear trivial, but those students are, I am informed, being billed for around £800 for those two weeks. That is money that many of them will not have. Worse, I am also informed that a debt collection agency may have been engaged to chase those who have not yet paid for the two weeks when they weren’t there.
This appears to be a most unsatisfactory situation. Today’s students carry quite enough debt into the world of work; were that £800 to be subject to additional interest and/or collection charges, it would just mean an increase in that debt burden. For this reason alone, I hope that either I have been misinformed, or that St Mary’s has reconsidered.
After all, Hartnett did say to students in his follow-up YouTube video “We are determined that none of you will suffer detriment because of the crisis”. Over to you, Dave.
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