(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Education, if he will make a statement on the return date given to university students and his Department’s plans to provide financial compensation to university students for lost teaching and rent during the coronavirus pandemic.
This Government recognise just how difficult the past year has been for students. Since the arrival of new and highly transmissible variants, we have had to adopt a cautious approach, in line with the wider restrictions. In January, we enabled only students on critical key worker courses to return, and from
Many things are indeed opening up in step 2, but most are outside and social mixing remains focused outside, and they do not involve the formation of new households. We know that, inside, the risk of transmission increases with the number of people mixing and the length of time they are together, which is why we are being cautious until stage 3.
The Office for National Statistics estimates that 23% of students are yet to return to their termtime accommodation, which still leaves up to 500,000 students yet to travel. Throughout the pandemic, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies has warned of the risk posed by the mass movement of students, especially given that they form new households.
At the heart of our decision was public health, but also student wellbeing. The last thing any of us wants is for students to have to repeatedly self-isolate, as some did last autumn. That would not only have been damaging to their mental health and wellbeing, but would have risked the ability to graduate of some students studying creative and practical subjects.
This decision was taken not in isolation, but as part of the Government’s overall road map to reopening. Every relaxation—even those with a low impact and low risk—will have an impact, so we have to judge the impact of these relaxations cumulatively to ensure that the road map is irreversible.
The Government do recognise the financial pressures the pandemic has placed on students in the financial sense, including accommodation costs. That is why, this week, we have announced an additional £15 million, on top of the £70 million since last December and the £256 million of taxpayer funding that we enabled universities to access for hardship.
It is important to clarify that the exemptions still apply to students who need to return to their term-time accommodation for mental health reasons or because of a lack of study space. We have asked universities to make their facilities available to all students who are back, to support their mental health and wellbeing.
I end by assuring the House that I will continue to work closely with universities so that, together, we can support students, and especially those who will graduate this year.
About 36 hours ago, around 1 million students who have still not returned to university since Christmas were told that they should not expect to do so until at least
This feels like a final, end-of-term insult to university students, who have had months of not being able to use libraries or labs, months without taking part in student societies or extracurricular activities, months of paying rent for accommodation that they could not use and months without being able to work, with some falling behind on rent and bills and needing to feed themselves from food banks. Is it any wonder that more than 50% of students say their mental health has got worse?
Students must be fairly compensated, both financially for rent and fees and with support to recover the learning time they have lost. The Government must more than double the funds for those facing hardship to £700 million, as suggested by the all-party parliamentary group for students.
Universities across the country have worked really hard. They have adapted to deliver courses online and invested considerable sums in doing so. However, the higher education sector is already facing huge financial uncertainty, so it is clear that universities alone cannot be expected to compensate students. The Government must step in. Will the Minister consider conducting a rapid review of the impact of the pandemic on university students and giving that review the powers to make recommendations on how students should be reimbursed by the Government in financial and learning terms? Will she consider calls to double the funds available to students facing financial hardship to £700 million? Finally, will she say sorry for the Government’s role in wrecking the last academic year for so many young people?
I will address the hon. Member’s first point regarding
In regard to monitoring the impact on students, we constantly do that, and have done so throughout the pandemic, and I will ensure that we continue to do so. On financial support, we have now given an additional £85 million, which is targeted at those most in need and getting the money into their pockets. On the impact of the pandemic, yes, we all know how challenging it has been and continues to be for students, and that is why students have had a disrupted year.
In 2018, just 12.3% of the most disadvantaged pupils in England were accepted into higher education institutions. The Minister’s passion and mine is to ensure that more people from disadvantaged backgrounds attend higher education, but does she agree that the proposal by Hull University to drop the requirement for students to demonstrate a high-level proficiency in written and spoken English is entirely the wrong way to go about that? It is patronising and counterproductive. Is it not better for universities to work with schools and colleges to ensure that all pupils reach the required standards of literacy to secure places on quality degree courses and degree apprenticeships?
I agree with my right hon. Friend; I am appalled by the decision of some universities to drop literacy standards in assessments—that is misguided and it is dumbing down standards. That will never help disadvantaged students. Instead, the answer is to lift up standards and provide high-quality education. I assure him that we will act on this, in line with our manifesto commitments on quality.
Last week, there was an exam-room silence from the Government on when universities would return, with students, their families and university staff learning from newspapers what was only announced to this House days later: that many students would not return to campus until
The Minister announced a further £15 million this year for hardship funding. Further support is clearly needed, but, once again, the Government are simply not working to the scale of the challenge. The funding offered to students in England is far smaller than that offered by the Labour Government in Wales. Will the Minister tell us why her Government believe that students in England need so much less than those elsewhere? At every stage of this pandemic, children, young people and students have been an afterthought for this Government, let down time and again. Will the Minister finally admit that these young people have been failed and tell the House what she will do to address it?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it has been an extremely challenging and disruptive year for students, and I assure him that students have never been and will never be an afterthought for this Government. In fact, this week we made a statement regarding the details of the plan for the remainder of students returning. We conducted a review over the Easter holidays, as we had publicly announced we would do, and we wanted to maximise the amount of time we had to review the data. The announcement made on
On further education and schools, the difference is that these youngsters do not go and form new households, nor do they travel across the country. On the data we have reviewed, we have considered the latest epidemiology data, alongside public health, economic, educational and other implications of the return. A wealth of data, papers and evidence is and will continue to be published.
I thank my hon. Friend for the extensive time that I know she has personally devoted to ensuring that students from my constituency get a fair deal from their universities, on a case-by-case basis. But given that universities are autonomous and independent of Government, does she agree that the example set by the best universities, which have been very proactive in ensuring students are treated appropriately, should be seen as an example for the others to follow, so that we ensure that all students who have not received the services in education or accommodation they paid for are fairly dealt with by those institutions?
University staff have worked exceptionally hard over the past year to enable students to continue learning, and I want to take this opportunity to once again thank them for that. If students do have concerns, they should raise them with their university, which has a duty, under consumer rights, to have a transparent and timely complaints process. They can then escalate that to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator if they remain unsatisfied
I wonder whether the Universities Minister can help me respond to a query I have had this morning from a constituent, who asks me why his siblings can return to in-person teaching in school and college, he can get a haircut and he can return to his part-time job in non-essential retail, but he cannot return to his university to continue his studies in person until after this academic year of teaching has finished. Student debt after graduating from an undergraduate degree is, on average, £40,000. Peter asks me why he is paying £9,250 a year for in-person teaching that has not materialised this year.
I assure the hon. Member that we are confident that in-person teaching and learning can be delivered in covid-secure environments, but the area of concern has and always will be the movement of students and the formation of new households, which does not occur in schools and further education colleges. Many of the things that we are opening up in stage 2 focus on being outside. Social mixing remains focused on being outside. The key thing is that they do not involve the formation of a new household. Throughout the entire process, we have been clear that students should still expect the quality of education, the quantity of provision and for it to be accessible for all.
As university courses remain primarily online until the middle of next month to control the spread of coronavirus, will the Minister confirm that universities continue to be expected to deliver the same quality and quantity of online learning as they have throughout the year? Will she encourage universities to extend their teaching and reviews so that students may experience classroom learning before their exams?
The Government do indeed expect the quantity and quality of teaching to be maintained and to continue to be accessible for all, whether it is delivered in person or online. Quality is in fact an Office for Students registration condition, and students who have concerns may notify the OfS. I thank all higher education staff, who have worked tirelessly throughout, enabling students to continue their learning.
Laura Halliwell and Isaac Grinnell are two university students on student placement schemes in my office. They have both raised concerns about their peers’ experiences during this academic year about lost teaching, mental health pressures and accommodation rent payments. As many students have been unable to go to their universities this year, missing out on teaching and the many other opportunities such as student societies and mental health services, why does the Minister think it is okay to charge £9,250 for university tuition fees this year?
I would like to clarify that the Government do not charge £9,250 for tuition fees; universities do, as autonomous institutions. The Government set the maximum level at which universities may continue to charge. Every university has opted to do that and, in return, we have said that we expect the quantity and quality of provision to be maintained, and for that to be accessible for all. If students have concerns, they should take it to their university and, if they remain unsatisfied, go to the OIA, which can lead and has led to fee refunds. No one, however, is doubting how challenging and different the past year has been for students.
Professor Whitty has said that the risk to 19 to 22-year-olds is very low. Professor Valance has said that the return of universities in the previous wave was not associated with transmission into the towns in which they are located. We know that universities are some of the best settings in the country for rigorous testing. Ten million pupils at schools and colleges went back on
We have continued to review the evidence. We did a comprehensive review over Easter, taking advice from the likes of the Deputy Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Medical Officer and looking at the advice from SAGE, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies. I agree with my right hon. Friend that it is disappointing that we cannot get students back earlier and it is a very difficult situation for the students involved, but we cannot move too fast, too soon. That would risk a resurgence in infections, hospitalisations and deaths. We are talking about the mass movement of, potentially, up to 500,000 students forming new households.
I thank the Minister for her reply to the urgent question. Are there plans to ensure that the help towards bills that students studying in Northern Ireland were able to access under the covid study disruption payment scheme rolled out by the Department for the Economy in Northern Ireland will be replicated in mainland UK for Northern Ireland students studying here, so that they have financial aid to offset their huge bills for minimal interaction and teaching?
The scheme in Northern Ireland has aimed to support those in financial hardship, as we have, but what we have done is slightly different. We have distributed £70 million and now an additional £15 million—a total of £85 million—of hardship money to universities to help those most in need, including international and postgraduate students. That is the process we have used to get money into the pockets of those most in need.
I have been contacted by some university students from Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke who have felt the closure of universities more acutely from the additional costs of alternative accommodation, loss of employment and the extra costs of accessing teaching online. Can my hon. Friend assure me that the £85 million in total support being made available will deliver tangible help to those left financially struggling?
I agree with my hon. Friend, and that is why we are focused on getting money into the pockets of the students who need it now. Universities have flexibility in how they distribute this funding in a way that will best prioritise those in need, but it must be spent on supporting students, including international students, postgraduate students and domestic undergraduate students. My message to any student listening is that if they need help, they should approach their university and ask for it. There is no stigma attached.
I have been inundated with messages from students and their families who are really worried about the impossible position they are in, having suffered huge restrictions to their education and social life and facing a mountain of student debt. Do the Government have a proper plan to address that? Can we put some energy into fighting for these young people?
I assure the hon. Member that I have put energy into fighting for these students. That is exactly why I prioritised ensuring that they can graduate on time, in creative and practical subjects, and that we can support them financially, particularly those who are in hardship. Again, I urge any student who is facing hardship to approach their university. These are really difficult times for students and their families, and as we navigate through the pandemic, we hope that there is light at the end of the tunnel and that next year will be much easier for students.
Bucks New University in Wycombe will want to be in a position to address the logical inconsistency that has come up several times in the House, which is that students cannot return to university but can go to non-essential retail, including to work in it. I have listened carefully to what my hon. Friend has said. Is the heart of the matter that students returning to university form new households? Is that what the Government are really worried about?
We had to make this decision on balance in relation to all the things that we were relaxing, because everything—even something with the slightest risk—could impact our pathway out of the pandemic. My hon. Friend is right: one of our key concerns was the mass movement of students—potentially up to 500,000 additional students—across England and the UK and the formation of new households.
Last month, I held an open meeting with students in my constituency. They raised issues including financial hardship—current funding is wholly inadequate—and mental wellbeing, lack of planning, tuition fees, rent, professional accreditation and digital exclusion. This is not a question of consumer rights, as the Minister suggests; it is a question of students’ futures after the pandemic. I have written to the Secretary of State, but what does the Minister say to students in Newcastle upon Tyne Central who feel wholly abandoned by this Government?
Once again, I reiterate that the Government appreciate how difficult and challenging this has been for students. It has not been the university experience that any of us would have wanted for them, and that is why we are working with universities to build back on the student experience as soon as they return. We are also working on a package of support for those who are graduating this year.
I have asked universities throughout the pandemic to prioritise mental health, setting up Student Space with the OfS, which is a £3 million additional platform, and setting up a working group and a Department for Education action group co-chaired by the Minister for Children and Families. We have now dedicated an additional £50 million to mental health via the OfS through the teaching grant next year. This is a priority for the Government, and we recognise the impact that the pandemic has had on the wellbeing and mental health of students.
Every MP will have heard from constituents that, compared with previous years, the quality and quantity of provision for students since March 2020 has not be maintained. That is certainly my experience. The Government have done a remarkable and world-leading job in supporting businesses, families and all sorts of people across the country through the pandemic. Surely they can find a way simply to write off the student loans borrowed in 2020-21. It will not solve the whole of the problem, but it is a significant step that will support students and remind them that we are on their side and that we have hope for their future.
I would like to remark on the resilience of students during this pandemic. University staff have worked tirelessly to ensure that students did not have to put their academic journeys or their lives on hold. We have seen some fantastic and innovative examples of this approach, but the Government have been clear throughout that we expect the quality, quantity and accessibility of tuition to be maintained. We have targeted our financial support to those in hardship and in getting cash into the pockets of those who need it. Any loan rebates would not achieve that.
We all understand the need for caution, but we have heard that the problem seems to be about the formation of new households and so on. May I urge the Minister to talk to universities, because not all universities are the same? The timings of terms and the patterns of accommodation are not all the same. Rather than have this fixed, hard “No, it can’t be done until
I regularly engage with universities. Just yesterday, I spoke to Universities UK and also held a taskforce with university sector representatives. We need an approach that is fair across the board to students, and also that is workable and deliverable. The hon. Member is quite right, every university and higher education institution is slightly different, so it would be impossible to create a bespoke, detailed model. Our goal has always been to get all of the student population back as quickly as we possibly can.
Students across Arundel and South Downs have told me of their disappointment with this week’s announcement. Will the Minister confirm that those students with inadequate study space or mental health or wellbeing issues may return now to their term-time address and that universities have been asked to open facilities such as libraries, catering and gyms to support those who have returned?
My hon. Friend is correct. Universities should support the return of students for mental health reasons and those who have inadequate study spaces. Universities can now reopen a number of facilities, so we have asked them to allow access to all students who are back in term-time accommodation, to safeguard both student wellbeing and to prevent isolation.
The inquiry of the all-party parliamentary group for students in January received testimony from hundreds who felt that they had been overlooked: losing the income on which they depend from casual jobs that have disappeared and ineligible for the support available to other workers; paying rent for accommodation that they cannot use; and missing learning experiences despite the best efforts of universities and their staff. The Minister knows that the Government’s response in February and again on Tuesday fell far short of what was needed. Students in Northern Ireland have received support worth more than £500 each, in Wales £300, in Scotland £80, and in England just £43.70. Does she understand why students describe themselves as being forgotten?
The difference is that we have started from a position of unlocking £256 million so that universities can support hardship. That is on top of the new money of £85 million that we have now dedicated. We cannot look at it on a per-student basis. We are very open and honest that this is not a per-student calculation; this is a targeted fund to support those most in need. Universities UK has estimated, and its studies show, that, on average, hardship funding is about £1,000 for each student. I do not want any student in England to feel forgotten. This Government have certainly not forgotten them, and we wholeheartedly accept how difficult and challenging the past year has been for them.
North Devon is the first place in England to record no covid cases for a week this year, and our students are keen to return to campus. Will my hon. Friend detail what measures are in place to ensure that they can do so safely, as they will inevitably be travelling to an area with higher rates of infection?
Universities continue to make significant investments in student and staff safety—including updated risk assessments, assessments of adequate ventilation and covid-secure measures such as mandatory social distancing, hand washing and face coverings—and testing is available to all students, who should currently be tested twice a week at their university test centre. From
For my constituent Harry Wild, who faces finals in June, May is too late. Given that pubs, shops, barbers and gyms are now open, why is he still forking out £9,250, plus accommodation, for no direct staff contact? Doing a head of highlights requires far more close contact than distanced content delivery, which is happening in the Chamber as we speak. Is Harry being penalised for studying in England? In Labour Wales, hybrid blended learning is already happening on campus.
We are confident that in-person teaching and learning can be delivered in a covid-secure environment; the area of concern has been and always will be the mass movement of students and the formation of new households. As the hon. Member pointed out, many things are indeed opening up, but most of them are outside and involve social mixing outside, and the key thing is that they do not involve the formation of new households.
I thank the Minister for her work throughout the pandemic to support students from Redcar and Cleveland and those studying at Teesside University. Just like in all walks of life, regular testing will be vital to getting life at universities back to normal. Can she confirm that no student will have to pay for covid tests to return to their studies?
I can indeed. I agree with my hon. Friend that testing plays an important part in mitigating the risk of transmission and assure him that under no circumstances will any student have to incur financial costs as a result of participating in our testing programme.
I am very concerned about the mental health of students who are still not back at university. I am conscious that the university experience is about way more than lectures and tutorials—at least, it was for me. Will my hon. Friend please update the House on what we are doing to support the mental health of students who are not yet back at university?
My hon. Friend is right: the wider student experience has been extremely impacted over the last year, despite the hard work of universities and student unions. UUK is sharing best practice and ideas to support universities to prioritise and enrich the student experience on return, and we are working with UUK on that.
Throughout the pandemic, I have reiterated to universities the importance of prioritising mental health and wellbeing and worked with them to enable that, including by convening a mental health working group. We have also worked closely with the OfS and launched Student Space, a £3 million mental health platform through which students can access support during the pandemic.
Time spent away from in-person learning has had a particularly damaging impact on students from deprived and disadvantaged backgrounds. Goldsmiths, University of London has raised with me its concerns about the widening gap between students from wealthy backgrounds, who have networks to help them to find jobs beyond university, and those from low-income families, who do not. To ensure that the gap in social mobility does not hold students back in the job market, what steps will the Minister take to make sure that tailored careers support and advice are provided?
We are currently working with universities and sector representatives on a package of support for those who will graduate this year. It is important to note that we have already done a number of things, including putting an additional £32 million into the national careers service. The number of work coaches in this country is now up to 27,000, and we have the skills toolkit, which is a fantastic free resource that enables students or graduates to access courses that will add to their employability.
Has the Minister’s Department done any assessment of the impact on the levels of attainment and grades that might be achieved in finals this year? If it is less than normal, will some sort of gearing be put into the system to ensure that students are not penalised by the fact that they have had to do so much work away from the university, without the advantage of attending a library, for instance?
Universities are autonomous institutions and all run their own assessments, so every single one of them is different in this respect. However, the Government are advocating that they introduce policies that mitigate some of the impact of the pandemic and that they are fair in doing so. Some have chosen to introduce no-detriment policies, for instance. However, this will not work in all cases—for example, if a university does not have enough information to do a no-detriment policy, or if the regulatory body that accredits the course is against that. My understanding from my work with universities is that they are on the whole being extremely flexible and accommodating for students and appreciate the sheer scale of the challenges that students have faced over the last year. I will continue to monitor the situation and work with universities on this.
There is increasing concern from students who have not been able to take many of the part-time jobs that they would otherwise have been able to. They are not eligible for much of the Government support and they are having to continue to pay rent. Some universities have been good, of course, but the private sector has not been. Is it not now time for the Government to have serious plans to address this hardship, as we have seen in Wales, and not just the pittance that has been given, on a discretionary basis, to students, many of whom are not able to access it properly?
It is important to remember that we have unlocked £256 million of taxpayers’ money for universities to access to support those in hardship, and we have allocated an additional £85 million. It is right that we have targeted that to those who are most in need, rather than allocating it as a blanket payment, which would have diluted the support available to those who genuinely need it at the moment. Once again, I reiterate my message to any student who is facing hardship: please come forward to your university and access that help. That includes international students and postgraduate students.
I thank the Minister for literally being on call on evenings and weekends to answer any questions we have had on universities on a case-by-case basis. University should be some of the best days of your life. I know that Cat Smith will join me in thinking the same, given our shared time in Lancaster. However, the past year has raised severe mental health issues for everyone, as we have heard. What conversations is the Minister having with education providers to support students’ health, mental health and wellbeing when they return?
My hon. Friend touches on a really important point. Throughout this pandemic I have reiterated to universities and sector bodies the importance of prioritising student wellbeing and mental health and moving that provision online in tandem with academic provision. I convened a working group to enable this. I have worked with the OfS to launch Student Space—a £3 million mental health project. We continue to evaluate the situation. We have also launched an action group with the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend Vicky Ford, looking at mental health across the spectrum of education, because these challenges are not going away and we need to continue to support students throughout this period.
I have two privately run student accommodation blocks in my constituency, which in normal times are home to hundreds of students from London’s top universities. Because of the travel restrictions and physical closure, they have had to live elsewhere for most of the year, but they still continue to pay the rent. These students have exhausted all means, including discussions with their accommodation provider, and they have been looking at trying to terminate their contracts or to be offered a rent reduction, but to no avail. They have been put into an impossible position, having faced huge restrictions on their education and their social life, but they are still paying rent. All they want is a fair deal from their accommodation provider. What plans do the Government have to address this?
We have urged accommodation providers to have students’ best interests at heart, to review their policies and to give refunds where they can, and a number have done so, including a plethora of universities and private providers such as Unite. The hardship money is there for those students who have faced a situation where they cannot access a refund. I again urge all students to access that, particularly if accommodation pressures are putting them in financial difficulties.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the excellent work she has done in supporting students and universities across this very difficult period. Clearly, students are now consumers—consumers enabled to demand the best from their universities—and the key point here is getting value for money. I know that she is trying to do that. Can she also state the position in relation to international students? Many universities are wholly dependent now on the income from international students. What advice is being given to those students, who are equally consumers of our education?
The Government’s expectations are clear: universities should maintain the quality, quantity and accessibility of provision. If a student, whether international or domestic, is unhappy, they can utilise the OfS notifications procedure to pre-empt a review, or make a formal complaint to their university. If they are still unsatisfied, they can go to the OIA, which can lead to fee refunds and has done in the past.
The latest ONS statistics show that around three quarters of students are already back in their term-time accommodation. Does the Minister agree that the Government’s failure to provide any information or guidance whatsoever until so very late in the day meant that many students travelled unnecessarily in anticipation of starting back after Easter?
We have continued to give guidance and advice to students throughout. We wanted to give the maximum period possible to review the data because our objective has always been to get students back as soon as we possibly can. At every stage, we have written to students and communicated with them via universities, but I do get how challenging it is and how disappointing it will be for some students not to be able to resume face-to-face teaching until
It is telling that the first step on the roadmap was education, so we know how seriously the Government take that subject. Will the Minister confirm that the highest rates of transmission among students are in university halls of residence and house sharing, so, regrettable as it is to have to delay the recommencement, it is simply a fact that we have to ensure the safety of this nation and that case rates continue to be suppressed?
The Government have committed to taking a cautious approach to easing restrictions, guided by the data instead of dates. Encouraging students on non-practical courses to return to in-person teaching will potentially lead to a significant number of students forming new households from across the country—up to 500,000—and enabling this to proceed too early may result in significant, higher numbers of infection and could increase the risk of students having to repeatedly self-isolate, which I am sure none of us would want.
I thank the Minister for responding to the urgent question; there were 29 questions in just over 40 minutes. We will now suspend for a short period.