Higher Education: New and Returning Students - Question

– in the House of Lords at 12:51 pm on 15th April 2021.

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Photo of Lord Moylan Lord Moylan Conservative 12:51 pm, 15th April 2021

To ask Her Majesty’s Government when they intend to update their guidance on Students returning to, and starting, Higher Education, last published on 8 March, following the resumption of university courses after Easter.

Photo of Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, on Tuesday my honourable friend the Universities Minister and I laid Written Statements confirming that, following the review of when all higher education students could return to in-person teaching, remaining students on non-practical courses should return to in-person teaching alongside step 3 of the road map out of lockdown no earlier than 17 May. Alongside this, the guidance document for students returning to or starting higher education was updated and published.

Photo of Lord Moylan Lord Moylan Conservative

My Lords, I am grateful to the Government for updating the guidance shortly after this Question was tabled. I am, of course, conscious of the need for sensible restraint in emerging from lockdown. However, by 17 May, many summer terms will be so far advanced that it will be almost not worth while, in many cases, restarting physical teaching. For many students, I suspect that it will be the autumn before they get back to where they ought to be. It seems to me that university students have been handed yet again the shortest of short straws and are bearing a disproportionate part of the national burden. Will my noble friend think again?

Photo of Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, of course we recognise the difficulties and disruption that a return in line with step 3 might cause the students. It does allow them, however, to receive some extra in-person teaching and assessment, to engage with extra-curricular activities, to take part in face-to-face careers support, to visit specialist libraries and so on, as well as to see their peers and boost their mental health. Students are keen to get back to campus and universities are keen to have them back. We want to enable this as soon as the public health situation allows.

Photo of Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Labour

My Lords, I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Moylan. Students have been short-changed: they are anxious; they are angry; they feel let down; and they cannot understand why they cannot return to university when schools, shops, gyms and hairdressers are open. I do not understand that either. It is having a detrimental effect on their mental health, their well-being and their studies. The appalling delay in the guidance has made the situation worse. How did the Government reach the decision to delay the return of students until 17 May? Have they assessed the current and long-term impact on the mental health and well-being of students? Have they considered the impact on universities, which play such a vital role in the economy of our country and which have made the most enormous efforts to put in place all of the requisite Covid-safe measures in respect of in-person teaching, libraries, accommodation and other facilities? I remind noble Lords of my interest as principal of Somerville College, Oxford.

Photo of Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, of course we understand the frustration that students might feel, particularly as things are opening up under step 2, but many of the things that are opening are taking place outside and do not involve the formation of new households, which a return of students to university would do. Inside, the risks of transmission increase, and the decision we have taken is in line with our cautious approach to the road map out of lockdown. At the heart of our decision is public health but also student well-being, as the noble Baroness mentioned. The last thing that any of us want is for students to have to self-isolate repeatedly, as some had to previously. That would not only be damaging to their mental health and well-being but put at risk the ability of some students studying creative and practical subjects to graduate.

Photo of Baroness Smith of Newnham Baroness Smith of Newnham Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence)

My Lords, there is cross-party support for the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, and the noble Baroness, Lady Royall. From the Liberal Democrat Benches, I reinforce everything that he said. I declare my interest as an academic at Cambridge University. I note that this is guidance. Why on earth should students or universities listen to guidance if it is not law, particularly if it goes against the interests of students?

Photo of Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

As I said, the Government recognise how difficult the situation is for students, but the road map is designed to maintain a cautious approach to the easing of restrictions so that we can maintain progress and not have to go back on it. The guidance that we have made available is in the best interests of students and the wider community, and we urge everybody to adhere to it.

Photo of Baroness Warsi Baroness Warsi Conservative

My Lords, I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the register of interests. I congratulate the Government on the student hardship fund, including the addition £15 million that has recently been made available. This has provided a necessary lifeline for many students. However, in relation to students returning to university, I am with noble Lords who have already spoken. What assurance can the Minister give that, in the event of a potential future lockdown, which has already been spoken about, the education of university students, many of whom have already lost at least a year’s worth of face-to-face teaching, will be prioritised in ways that they have not been over the last year?

Photo of Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I thank my noble friend for her welcome for the further £15 million of student hardship funding that we have announced this week. That is on top of the £70 million that we had already provided and the £256 million which providers are able to use during this academic year. Our cautious approach is designed to ensure that this step out of lockdown will be irreversible and to avoid the situation that my noble friend outlined.

Photo of Baroness Bull Baroness Bull Crossbench

My Lords, I remind the House of my interests as set out in the register. The ONS student insights survey revealed that almost two-thirds of students have experienced a decline in mental health over this academic year, brought about in part by the uncertainty, anxiety and isolation which is, of course, exacerbated by this further decision. Will the Government commit to providing additional funding for university mental health services, given the increasingly high demand that they will face both now and over the coming year?

Photo of Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

Yes, we have worked with the Office for Students to provide Student Space, which is being funded by up to £3 million by the OfS to support students with their mental health and well-being. Furthermore, we have asked the OfS to allocate £15 million towards student mental health this year through the proposed reforms to strategic priorities grant funding.

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Shadow Spokesperson (Further & Higher Education), Shadow Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) (Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and International Trade)

My Lords, university students feel forgotten in the Government’s plans for leaving lockdown. What discussions have the Government had with university leaders and student representatives regarding the date for return to in-person teaching? Given that, by mid-May, many universities will have finished their teaching year, does the Minister accept that the reality is that this decision means that many universities and courses will effectively stay online until the autumn? What impact will this have on students, who have, frankly, been paying through the nose to study at campuses that they have not been able to access since Christmas?

Photo of Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

The students are most certainly not forgotten. My honourable friend the Universities Minister engages directly with students and representatives of students through various groups that she has set up, including ones focusing on mental health. The Office for Students is also conducting some polling of students so that their views can be fed into decision-making. That, alongside the scientific advice, is what has led us to the decision that we have taken this week.

Photo of Lord Addington Lord Addington Liberal Democrat

My Lords, does the Minister agree that what is coming out in this Question Time and in the news is that students do not seem to know what the situation is? They do not know if they will get a reduction on fees. They do not know if they are going to get some money back on accommodation taken for university. Will the Government at least publish something that is a guideline to what sort of behaviour they think is proper? If not the Government themselves, the Office for Students would be a very good body to take this on.

Photo of Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, as I say, we have updated the guidance to students with advice on returning to universities this week. As was announced in February, students and HE providers will be given a week’s notice of any further easing of restrictions as it affects them. This is a changing situation with the pandemic. We understand the frustrations people face, but we are grateful to them for their forbearance.

Photo of Lord Wood of Anfield Lord Wood of Anfield Labour

My Lords, surveys suggest that over a fifth of university students say they would need extra teaching over the summer—which I believe many of them are being offered—to catch up on lessons, tutorials and classes they may have fallen behind on over the course of the year. Will the Government provide additional financial support for students who may need to study beyond the normal academic year?

Photo of Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, such decisions are for universities, as autonomous institutions, to make in line with the guidance we have set out this week.

Photo of Baroness Prashar Baroness Prashar Crossbench

My Lords, would the Minister agree that the uncertainties of lockdown and this incomprehensible delay are having a negative impact on international students and the reputation of the UK as a place to come and study? What impact does he think this will have on the intake for 2021 and 2022?

Photo of Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

Students around the world will have seen how UK universities have reacted admirably to the challenges posed by the pandemic, designing and delivering high-quality online learning and offering exceptional well-being and mental health support. The UK was one of the first countries to introduce immigration flexibility for students, and our new post-study work route, the graduate route, will launch on 1 July, further encouraging international students to choose to come and study in the UK.