Students’ Return to Universities

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:43 pm on 29th September 2020.

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Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education 12:43 pm, 29th September 2020

I thank the hon. Lady for her questions. I am glad she welcomes the announcements on further education. The changes we want to drive in further education are absolutely vital to ensure that our country is in the right place to seize new opportunities now that we have exited the European Union and to make sure our youngsters, and people of all ages, have the skills they need to drive productivity in this country and ensure that they get the very most out of their lives.

The hon. Lady mentioned the advice from SAGE. Understandably, we wanted to update the advice we had issued on 2 July on the return of universities and higher education institutions following the conclusions of SAGE, which we did. That took into account the issues that SAGE had raised and some of the suggestions that it had put forward. SAGE also warned about the impact of youngsters not going to university and of having the opportunity to return taken away from them. That was recognised across all four nations of the United Kingdom—how important it is for youngsters to be able to go to study at university.

The hon. Lady raises an important point about digital access. I am sorry that she missed the announcement that we have made £100 million available for universities to use to ensure that youngsters have digital access, including students from the most deprived backgrounds, who would perhaps not be in a position to access courses. It is vital that if we are in a situation where people will have blended learning, all students are able to access it. We are taking seriously some of the challenges that all students and universities will face, which is why we have made £256 million available to make sure that where students are facing real hardship, universities can access funding to help them.

I thank the Minister for Universities, my hon. Friend Michelle Donelan, who has been in regular touch with universities over the last few days. A small number of universities have seen a number of coronavirus cases—it is not uncommon in communities across the country. She has been in touch with them to make sure that they know we are there to support them and give them any help that is required. We must not forget, however, that hundreds of thousands —almost a million—students have safely returned to university over the last few weeks. They will start their studies and benefit from a brilliant, world-class university education.