We agree that students are being hit by the pandemic. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group for students, I spent January with Members from both sides of the House, including two of the Minister’s Conservative predecessors, taking evidence from students, universities and landlords. We reported to Government saying that they should substantially increase hardship support; at least double the student premium funding of £256 million, which was intended for other purposes; enable full rent refunds for unused accommodation; and address lost education. The Government have recognised the problems, but they have failed on the solutions.
The Minister will know that, for many students, the maintenance loan does not even cover rent. They fund their studies from part-time work in hospitality and retail jobs, which have disappeared through the pandemic. The new hardship fund equates to around £26 per student in England, or the wages for half a shift in a bar job, but Wales and Scotland have provided hardship funding of around £300 and £80 per student. Does the Minister not accept that students across the country deserve the same level of support?
Many students have contracted for accommodation that they have been told not to use. The Minister has congratulated universities and providers that have offered rent rebates, but the amounts vary, and many students have received nothing. Does she accept the inequity, particularly between students in university accommodation and students in the private rented sector? What will she do beyond simply encouraging providers to do better?
The Minister’s statement is silent on learning loss. Universities and their staff have worked hard to offer the very best education, but it cannot match normal learning. For some students, progression or professional qualification will be damaged. We were told of lost teaching, lost access to labs and specialist facilities, lost field trips and more, so will she commit to discussing a learning remediation fund with the Chancellor? If not, what steps will she take to ensure that today’s students are not held back? Finally, will she join us in asking UK Research and Innovation to extend research studentships where needed? Will she also provide support for postgraduate research students, who are funded differently?
Students have had their education disrupted, they will enter a challenging jobs market, and they will be paying the cost of the pandemic for longer than the rest of us. They deserve better.