I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for advance sight of it. I am glad that, after a decade of slashing funding for further education, the Conservatives have recognised that this is an important sector for life chances and for our economy. I would like to work constructively with the Government to get this right, but their continued reliance on loans to fund education and the fact that the funding will not come on stream for many more months as we head for an unemployment crisis, are deeply concerning.
The situation as students return to university is desperately worrying. Across the country, many find themselves in isolated and cramped accommodation, parents are worried about their well-being and safety, and university staff who have worked so hard over the summer to prepare are anxious and angry that the Government did not keep their part of the bargain. They have all been let down by the Government, just as they let down many of the same students with their handling of exam results last month.
What students, staff and their families need now is reassurance. Nineteen days ago—the last time the Secretary of State commented on the situation at universities—he stressed the importance of delivering clear messages to students, and I hope he will use the opportunity of answering my questions today to do that.
Everybody knew that the return of students to universities would present significant challenges—SAGE warned of the impact weeks ago. What planning was put in place over the summer to ensure students would be able to return safely? Universities have stressed the importance of being able to work closely with local public health teams, so why did it take the Secretary of State and the Health Secretary until last Wednesday to write to local directors of public health about the return of university students?
What is the Secretary of State’s message to those students who have not yet moved to campus? They need clarity, should they do so. What urgent steps is he taking to ensure that every student can get the best possible education, whether they are at home or on campus? How many students are currently unable to learn remotely because of a lack of digital access or devices, and what is he doing to address that? What extra support will be given to students with special educational needs and disabilities? He is right that some courses require face-to-face teaching, but has he considered supporting universities to move all teaching online, where this is possible, at least for this first term?
For weeks now, Labour has warned the Government that they must get a grip on testing and tracing if we are to reduce the spread of the virus, and the failure to do so lies at the root of this situation. Sorting it must be the Government’s top priority. In his statement, the Secretary of State said that only those with symptoms should try to get a test. That will leave many without symptoms in self-isolation in difficult circumstances. Can he tell us how many students, staff and members of the community around universities have symptoms but are waiting for a test? What is the local testing capacity in each community with a university, and is he confident that it will be sufficient if there is a spike cases? Some universities have taken the lead where the Government have failed, and have begun to develop their own testing capacity. What support is the Secretary of State offering those institutions and others that wish to do this?
We cannot forget that, at the heart of this crisis, are thousands of young people—many away from home for the first time, and many now isolated with a group of people who are practically strangers. We can only imagine how hard it is for them. The Secretary of State said he has asked universities to provide additional help, but beyond asking, what will his Department do to help them? I am glad he has listened to Labour and finally given a straight answer on reuniting students and their families over Christmas, but why did it take several days and repeated contradictions from his ministerial colleagues?
In conclusion, the crisis now threatening our universities was predictable, and it was predicted. Today, the Secretary of State failed to outline a plan to get testing fit for purpose, failed to commit that every student who needs access to remote learning will get it, and had no plan to ensure the future of our universities. If he does not get a grip, the situation we have seen in recent days could repeat itself across the country. Students will be unable to continue their studies, families will be concerned for their wellbeing and universities will face serious financial difficulties—and the Secretary of State will once again have let young people down as a result of his incompetence.