Students’ Return to Universities - Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:16 pm on 1st October 2020.

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Photo of Lord Storey Lord Storey Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Education) 1:16 pm, 1st October 2020

My Lords, I thank the Minister for the Statement. We on these Benches very much welcome the announcements on vocational education, particularly the flexible lifelong learning entitlement, of which we have been extolling the virtues for several years.

Regarding the apprenticeship scheme, a flagship policy of the coalition Government that has rather lost its way in recent years, we think we have seen significant reductions in the number of apprentices and the number of young people using the scheme. We need to listen to business and industry about how we can make the apprenticeship scheme work again, particularly for the creative industries.

The Government’s Kickstart programme did not actually figure in this Statement but, again, it supports young people. There is a risk that it does not provide support for those most at risk, a concern shared by many youth organisations. Rather than taking up time now, I will write to the Minister about the problems of eligibility and how they can be overcome.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, I am horrified that hundreds of thousands of students have returned to their universities, often in cities and urban areas and often living in local communities. Students like to celebrate their return to university and to socialise, and we have seen over 20 cases of Covid affecting those students. It seems to me that the possibility of being able to learn online was very easy for students, so why did we bring them back? What was the scientific advice? What was the modelling that said we could bring students back to university, when they could easily have learned online, without a proper testing regime? There might have been the tests but there were not the facilities to get the test results quickly in place.

In my own city we have 70,000 students returning, many of them living in houses and flats in local communities. Many universities have monetarised their accommodation with private agreements with companies such as Unite Students and CRM, and part of those agreements is for occupancy rates of 80% to 90%. Will the Government reimburse students if they are forced to relinquish their accommodation through illness or through a decision that it is not safe for students to return to university after Christmas?

Students self-isolating in a very small space brings additional problems. Has the DfE been in touch with each university to see what additional support can be provided, be it for mental health or other needs?

In Liverpool today a local lockdown has been announced, under which different households cannot mix. How does this affect university students from different households who are sharing a house?