Students’ Return to Universities - Statement

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

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 1:16 pm, 1st October 2020

I thank both noble Lords for their questions and their attention to this issue. Starting university is a stressful experience at the best of times—people are often living away from home for the first time—but particularly so in the current circumstances. As the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, said, it is stressful not just for the students but for their parents, families and the university staff looking after them. That is why my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has said that throughout this pandemic our priority has always been to keep young people as safe as possible while they continue to learn.

The noble Lord, Lord Bassam, asked whether students should currently go to university. Yes, they should, if their university says that it is safe. At the beginning of this week, we had 80% of universities welcoming students back. It will be 90% by the beginning of next week. Students should check with their university and certainly go unless their university tells them not to.

The noble Lord also asked about testing. We are testing 225,000 a day at the moment, with a target to increase that to 500,000 by the end of the month. The message to students is clear, as it is to everyone else: if you have symptoms, please get a test.

The noble Lords, Lord Bassam and Lord Storey, asked about digital access. The Government have provided over £100 million to help provide laptops and devices for disadvantaged children and young people so that they can access the education and services they need. This includes devices for care leavers, including those studying at university. We have been working with universities, which have been adept and adaptable in the current circumstances, by shifting their provision online, as they did at the end of the last academic year and continuing that work over the summer, ready for the start of the new academic year.

I think the noble Lord, Lord Storey, was anticipating the Statement on further education which my right honourable friend is making in another place as we speak. Perhaps if he writes on that we can correspond once it has been made in another place.

He also asked about face-to-face learning rather than online learning. There are some courses where face-to-face provision is important—for instance, in the creative sector and for medical degrees, which are so important in the current circumstances. Universities are using a blend of online and face-to-face teaching with the provisions and mitigations in place to do that safely.

The noble Lord, Lord Storey, asked about accommodation and households. In student halls, it is universities and HE providers that determine what a household is, often around a shared kitchen or shared bathroom facilities. They will provide advice to students about how they can safely self-isolate in a household if that is what they need to do in their part of the country. The Government play no direct role in provision of student accommodation, whether managed by universities or the private sector, but we have urged universities and private hall providers to be fair in their decisions about rent charges in the current climate. Some universities and large companies have waived rents for the summer term or released students early from their contracts at the end of the last academic year, which we welcomed. If students think their accommodation provider is treating them unfairly, they can raise a complaint under the student accommodation code if their provider is a member.