It is a great pleasure to follow my friend and Sussex colleague, my hon. Friend Sally-Ann Hart. Like her, I wish to speak for one group whose plight has been systematically under-represented in this House from the start of the covid pandemic.
A constituent, Bella, who is a student at the University of Bristol, wrote to me eloquently:
“I’m the first person to go to university in my family. I have spent my whole life looking forward to it and worked incredibly hard to earn my place. Online learning is not the same as the teaching that took place before. Student life has been halted. There are no societies, limited access to libraries, minimal mental health support and—further still—we are now not even able to return to our accommodation at the beginning of the second term. To say I’m disappointed would be an understatement. Yet, we must pay the same in fees.”
This Government have a proud tradition of broadening access to and driving opportunity through higher education. We are on the side of the strivers and for the individual, whose aspirations we should always support against the vested interests and the status quo.
For students such as my constituent Bella, and many hundreds of thousands like her, I would like to see the Government do three things. First, they should support undergraduates to be able to go back to college now and stay back, with a structured return, underpinned by the triple security of a rigorous and robust testing regime, compliance with social distancing and the new restrictions on international arrivals.
Secondly, I would like the Government to extend the summer term by the same number of weeks that are forgone now, in order to provide additional teaching, exam or even simply social time, procured via an agreement with the leadership of Universities UK in return for Government support for universities to retain their full tuition fees for the current year.
Finally, although it is very much subordinate to getting universities open again, I would like the Government to look once more at the possibility of a financial support package for students, who as consumers are currently getting a very poor deal.