Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:11 pm on 12th January 2021.

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Photo of Sally-Ann Hart Sally-Ann Hart Conservative, Hastings and Rye 6:11 pm, 12th January 2021

For 11 months now, we have been gripped in the jaws of the covid-19 health pandemic. It has brought hardship on businesses and livelihoods, upended our very freedoms and liberties, and unfortunately, for too many families, brought heartbreak and sorrow at the loss of a loved one.

The area I want to focus on is the impact that covid-19, and with it, the necessary measures for lockdown that the Government have introduced to suppress the virus, has had on education—specifically, the toll it has taken on university students. Many in this House will have experienced the excitement, anticipation and nerves of those first few days at university, meeting new people, settling into student digs, attending the first lecture—and yes, out of the gaze of mum and dad, enjoying a drink or two more than perhaps one should. But for thousands of students this year and last, that experience has been denied them; they are experiencing a university education and lifestyle through a screen back at the family home as the covid-19 virus continues to swirl around us.

University staff and lecturers have gone above and beyond to support students and ensure that they can still receive the education they signed up for. However, this is not comparable to the experience students should be getting. It is not offering students access to the resources and facilities that cohorts before them could utilise. We therefore have to ask: is this year really worth over £9,000 for the educational experience students are getting? Meanwhile, is it right that when we have asked students to do the right thing and stay at home away from university, they are still being charged for rent at their university halls of residence?

This next generation are going to be the pioneers in industries and endeavours that none of us can even imagine right now. In the post-covid-19 world, we are going to need new talent to drive our green industrial revolution, to chart our course around the world as global Britain, to end up educating and training the generation that comes after them—and yes, to be the scientists of the future who will discover new vaccines for diseases and viruses that we do not know of yet.

So far these students have had a raw deal through no fault of their own, and we should do something now to help them out. We can start by reducing their university fees for the covid-19 period and not asking them to pay rent on university accommodation that they are being asked not to stay in. Those might seem like small gestures, but they matter. We need to be doing all we can to support our young people through this challenging time. They face an uncertain jobs market and an economy battered by recent events, so let us reduce some of the burden now. University staff are playing their part, with the provision of education; now, as a Government, we can do our bit and relieve the financial pressures that our students are facing.