Students’ Return to Universities

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:32 pm on 29th September 2020.

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Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education 12:32 pm, 29th September 2020

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement regarding the return of students to universities. Throughout this pandemic, our priority has always been to keep young people as safe as possible while they continue to learn. It is this commitment to learning and skills that has led the Prime Minister to announce today that, through our lifetime skills guarantee, we will upgrade further education colleges across the country with huge capital investment. We will expand the apprenticeship offer, we will fund valuable free technical courses for adults equivalent to A-level, and we will extend our digital boot camps. We will expand and transform the funding system so that it is as easy for a student to get a loan for a higher technical course as for a university degree. The Government will give everyone a flexible, lifelong loan entitlement to four years of post-18 education, so that adults will able to retrain with high-level technical courses instead of being trapped in unemployment.

At the beginning of September, we saw the successful reopening of our schools and colleges. Universities have been working just as hard to make campuses as safe as possible, including through enhanced cleaning measures, social distancing on campuses and changes to timetables to stagger and manage attendance on site. We have now seen the new intake of first-year students who are beginning a new chapter in their lives at university, together with those who are returning to carry on their studies. I know that this will not be the start that any of them would have wanted or expected, and I would just like to say that I am pleased to see that universities and students have followed the guidance in a responsible way, putting themselves, their friends and the local community in a safe place and out of harm’s way.

Students, as well as the wider community, accept that when we are living in a global pandemic we have to operate in a society with restrictions, but I do not believe we should look to inflict stricter measures on students or expect higher standards of behaviour from them than we would from any other section of society; there must be a parity. The decision to keep universities open and all our students learning has been a result of an enormous team effort throughout the university and higher education sector. We have drawn on the expertise of the HE taskforce that we set up, and we have been providing robust public health advice and regular updates to the sector to help it to plan carefully to keep students and staff as safe as possible. As with all our education settings, we will continue monitoring the situation closely and will follow the latest scientific advice, adapting policies as the situation changes

I know there has been some anxiety about the impact safety measures will have on the Christmas holidays. Students are important members of the communities they choose to study in. We expect them to follow the same guidance as those local communities. We will work with universities to make sure that all students are supported to return home safely and spend Christmas with their loved ones if they choose to do so. It is essential that we put in place measures to ensure that that can happen, while minimising the risk of transmission. Where there are specific circumstances that warrant it, there may be a requirement for some students to self-isolate at the end of term, and we will be working with the sector to ensure that will be possible, including by ending in-person learning early if that is deemed to be necessary. My Department will publish this guidance shortly, so that every student will be able to spend Christmas with their family.

Where students choose to stay in their university accommodation over Christmas, universities should continue making sure that they are safe and well looked after. Of course, it is inevitable there will be cases of covid occurring in universities, just as there are in our wider communities and the constituencies we represent, but we believe that universities are very well-prepared to handle any outbreaks as they arise, and we have been working with the sector and Public Health England to make sure that they have every support and assistance they need should this happen. I have been impressed by the steps that our universities have been taking, working hand in glove with local authorities and local public health teams to safeguard students and staff. All our universities have local outbreak plans, and all of those have been discussed with local directors of public health.

It is essential that we continue to allow our students to have face-to-face teaching wherever possible, as part of a blended learning approach. I have heard the Opposition call for all learning to move online. Although online learning is a highly effective part of the learning experience, many courses, including medicine and dentistry, as well as the creative arts, require a face-to-face element. That is why our guidance, published on 11 September, set out a tiered approach in higher education.[This section has been corrected on 30 September 2020, column 6MC — read correction] Tiers enable a balance of face-to-face and online learning within the context of the covid risk, and will operate alongside local restrictions that are placed on the wider community in the area that the university is in.

I would now like to mention the latest position regarding testing for students. We have been working with the Department of Health and Social Care to make sure that the testing capacity is sufficient and appropriate for universities, and I am sure the House will be aware that the Department has now launched the NHS covid-19 app. The Department continues to make more testing available, and the vast majority of people can get a test locally. The Department is also increasing the number of local testing sites and laboratories, adding new Lighthouse laboratories in Newport and Charnwood to the national lab network, as well as additional walk-in centres being planned. While we know that testing capacity is the highest it has ever been, we are still seeing a significant demand for tests. It is vital that staff and students at universities, like any other member of society, get a test only if they develop coronavirus symptoms or if advised to do so by a clinician or a public health official.

I am aware that going to university can be a stressful time for some students, many of whom will be living away from their family and friends for the first time in their lives. This year will undoubtedly see added pressures because of disruption and uncertainty caused by the global pandemic, and we must be mindful of how that will affect the mental health and wellbeing of students. Many universities have bolstered existing mental health services and offer alternatives to face-to-face consultations. Once again, I would like to thank staff at universities and colleges who have responded so quickly and creatively to the need to transform those essential services.

We have asked universities to provide additional help and practical support to students as well, and I am pleased to say that universities are making sure students who are isolating are properly cared for and can access food and medical and cleaning supplies if needed. Student accommodation and support services will be a vital resource if any student has to isolate and for students generally during the whole period of the pandemic. As well as providing support for those in halls of residence, universities will make sure that students who live in houses in multiple occupation away from campus will still have access to advice and support if they need it. Universities are also able to call on £256 million provided by the Government for hardship funding for students who have to isolate.

The Government have taken a conscious decision to prioritise education. We know how fundamental a good education is to opportunity, to aspiration and to social mobility.

That is why we opened schools, and why over 99.8% of schools are now open, delivering education to our children. Delivering education and the opportunity to go to university is equally important for those youngsters who have left college or school as well. We will never be in a position where we can eliminate all risk, but we will not condemn a generation of young people by asking them to put their lives on hold for months or years ahead. We believe that universities are very well prepared to handle any outbreaks as they arise. I commend this statement to the House.