[Sir David Amess in the Chair]
[Relevant Documents: Second Report of the Petitions Committee, Session 2019–21, The impact of Covid-19 on university students, HC 527; Third Special Report of the Petitions Committee, Session 2019–21, The impact of Covid-19 on university students: Government Response to the Committee’s Second Report, HC 780.]
I beg to move,
That this House
has considered e-petitions 300528, 302855, 306494, 324762, and 552911, relating to university tuition fees.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Sir David. I want to thank Miriam Helmers, Sophie Quinn, Wiktoria Seroczynska, Maya Ostrowska and Georgia Henderson for creating the petitions, which have more than 980,000 signatures, collectively—a very significant number. In the order of the names I have given, the petitions are to “Require universities to reimburse students’ tuition fees during strike action”, to “Reimburse all students of this year’s fees due to strikes and COVID-19”, to “Refund university students for 3rd Semester Tuition 2020”, to “Require universities to partially refund tuition fees for 20/21 due to Covid-19” and to “Lower university tuition fees for students until online teaching ends”. Each petition differs slightly from the others, but a common thread runs through them, and that is the fact that hundreds of thousands of students are aggrieved because they have not received adequate value for money from the universities. I want to make it clear that, as the Committee has heard in evidence, university staff have gone to extraordinary lengths to provide teaching during the pandemic. To many petitioners, the fault lies at the door of the universities.
For the last 30 years, school leavers have been told repeatedly by Government and the media that a university degree is the best, if not the only, option to take them towards a fulfilling career. For many, gaining a place at university is the culmination of a lifelong dream. However, it comes at a cost. English universities can charge up to £9,250 a year in tuition fees. So if, for example, someone did a three-year course at £9,250 a year and got £6,378 a year for their maintenance loan they would graduate with £46,884 of debt, and that is before interest is added. By any stretch of the imagination that is a massive amount of money. We would think that if someone is investing that type of money, they deserve an adequate return on the investment, and that if they do not get it, they should be properly compensated. Students simply want value for money.
I want to explain two of the ways in which many students feel they did not receive value for money, because of the pandemic and strikes. The Petitions Committee conducted a survey of people who had signed relevant petitions and received more than 25,000 responses from current students. Most students who responded told the Committee that teaching hours at the universities had fallen because of the pandemic, and they were either “dissatisfied” or “very dissatisfied” with the quality of the education they were receiving. A student enrolled on a clinical course expressed disappointment at the quality of the teaching. Clinical practice did not take place, and they described the fear that this raised:
“It isn’t a case of will the medics, dentists and vets of this year come out as less trained individuals but a question of how much poorer will their practice be.”
The drop in teaching hours affects arts students as well. Seminars and debates are difficult to translate into online teaching, especially when there are international students, who are often in different time zones because of the pandemic. That has meant for some that the interactivity of discussion, which is vital to subjects such as history or English literature, is lost. For those who are affected by strike action as well, teaching from January 2020, through to the summer, was minimal.
In a written submission, the National Union of Students expressed a concern:
“A whole cohort of students would lose faith in the UK’s education system if they are not financially reimbursed for missed teaching.”
Wiktoria Seroczynska, the creator of the petition to refund student tuition fees for the third semester of 2020, has told me that among those she has spoken to across different universities,
“comparing the quality of education we were promised to what we have right now, is shocking.”
She has explained that students feel very let down and have found it difficult to engage with their learning in the same way. Reduced contact hours, a struggle to engage students in online learning, a lack of mental health support and a lack of connectivity with tutors have all contributed to a far reduced experience. The pandemic has meant that universities have been forced to adapt the way in which they provide teaching, but the Government’s delay in giving clearer guidance has often meant rushed decisions. Georgia Henderson, who created the petition to lower tuition fees until online teaching ends, has echoed this, saying that there has been a lack of clarity from the Government regarding plans of action for students.
Students were encouraged to return with the promise of a mix of in-person and online courses, but many found themselves being taught wholly online. This has not only cost them rent, but left many isolated in a new place they have only just moved to, without any form of support system. As we have recently seen in Manchester, with a rent strike and the occupation of Owens Park by students, it is clear that many feel let down. One student, Izzy Smitheman, told the BBC:
“They brought us here for profit rather than our safety”.
Another has said that students feel they were “tricked” back into university in September. Students feel greatly mistreated by the Government: blamed for the rise in covid cases, locked in accommodation in new cities with no support network, and not receiving the teaching they have paid for. The Government’s lack of engagement with these issues is severely damaging.
The lack of clarity, and the difference between what students were led to believe and the reality of their teaching, have hugely affected students’ mental health. Since the beginning of the academic year, a student has died every week from suicide. Let me repeat that horrendous statistic: since September, every week, a student has taken their own life. Every week, parents have been told that their child died alone at their university; every week, friends and families grieve for a life cut short; and still the Government have not addressed these students’ issues. Their petitions voice a “desperate cry for help”, as Georgia Henderson says. The Government have repeatedly failed to plan for the safe learning of students at universities, leaving those universities to navigate a way to deliver high-quality teaching at short notice, often with devastating effects on the mental health of students. The Government need to realise that, without proper planning, it is the student—the young person—who suffers.
Petition 300528 would
“Require universities to reimburse students' tuition fees during strike action”.
The petition argues that if universities were forced to issue students with refunds for missed teaching due to strike action, that might strengthen the case of striking teaching staff. Ultimately, universities should take their teaching staff’s complaints seriously and negotiate with them in good faith. However, far too often, striking staff feel that this is not the approach being taken. In February, during strike action at universities across the country, University and College Union chairperson Jo Grady said:
“We are on the same side in this dispute and we hope students will put pressure on their vice-chancellors” to send their representatives back to the negotiating table
“with a clear mandate to work seriously to try and resolve the disputes”.
The universities Minister has said that this situation is neither of the universities’ making, nor the Government’s. However, the Government have a duty of care. Just as the most vulnerable are rightly going to receive funding through the winter grant scheme this year, so too should the Government look after their students. The Government have stepped in to provide financial aid for other essential sectors of our society that have experienced financial difficulty due to the pandemic, but have not given any aid to higher education. Petition creator Georgia Henderson has told me that students understand that it is up to universities to lower tuition fees. However,
“as the government was responsible for increasing the cap on said tuition fees, I see it only fair for the government to lower these in the light of Covid.”
Universities are vital to our economy and vital for our country to continue to thrive. We pride ourselves on our educational institutions and on the contributions that our universities make and have made to the world. Surely we ought to make sure that their integrity is maintained, that students feel they are being treated fairly, and that higher education in England is not only rigorous but good value for money.
Currently, if a student wishes to seek reimbursement from the university, they have the right to take up an individual complaint. Many students do not know how the system works, and even if they did, placing the responsibility on the individual is not efficient, reasonable or fair. Many have argued that the current processes set up to deal with complaints are inadequate for the volume of complaints expected as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Office of the Independent Adjudicator received 2,371 complaints in 2019. If even 1% of students in higher education were to complain to their institution and have that passed on to the OIA, that would represent a roughly tenfold increase in the number of complaints it had to deal with. Even if the OIA’s capacity were increased, the exact circumstances in which students should expect to receive a refund or be able to repeat part of their course are not clear, which would mean a vast number of lengthy, time-consuming and confusing cases. If the financial burden of those refunds falls entirely on the universities, it will cripple them and inevitably lead to staff redundancies.
The Petitions Committee produced a report on the impact of coronavirus on university students. One of its recommendations was that the Government put in place a new process to consider complaints that would cover complaints arising from covid-19 and other out-of-the-ordinary events that affect the courses of large numbers of students, including large-scale strikes. That would at least mean that students who believe themselves to be entitled to a refund would have a clear method of pursuing it.
Universities already face a fall in revenue. If they are to maintain their high-quality staff and facilities, they will not be able to reimburse all students. Therefore, conversations need to be had to ascertain the level of refund that students could reasonably demand based on the teaching they received, how feasible it is for universities to do that and how much the Government should give to support universities and students.
The petitions have made it clear that students feel “forgotten about” and
“cruelly mistreated by the government”,
as Georgia Henderson wrote to me. If, as the Government say, they believe that students should be at the heart of higher education, they need to act on their concerts. If they do not, they run the risk of tarnishing this country’s long-held reputation for excellence in academic institutions.
I thank Chris Evans for bringing this important matter to the House. I know that he is also the joint chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on customer service, so he must be appalled by the customer service that students are receiving.
I have been following the matter for almost a year, from the strike action to the first covid-19 lockdown, through the exam situation, the return to university and lockdown again. I have spoken to and supported students on the way, and I have learned a lot about what they are going through.
In fact, I made a Blue Collar Conversations podcast on the issue on
Despite those institutions being the height of academia, students watched revision lectures that turned out to be a rehash of those from previous years. As for contact, there used to be one-to-one contact—about 120 hours per term—but in the summer term that went down to just four hours, and there was no reduction in the fees. She did not make a complaint, because she thought that her university was measured on good results, and, “We had been told that our exams would be marked compassionately, which meant that we could all get good results”. Therefore, there was no recourse, no complaint and she would not get a refund. She said that this was not her being cynical; she said that this is what they are all talking about, as students together.
She said, “You know, I don’t feel like a student. This is something I have wanted to do all my life. I have aimed to get to university. I feel more like a commodity, and I don’t feel that others think that my education is paramount. It is to me; that is why I am paying £9,000 to attend university.” She also said, “You know what? What I am receiving now is not what I contracted for. It’s not what I signed up to do. I feel more like a tin of baked beans, just packed high and sold off—only in this instance, they are not being sold off cheap. They are being sold off at a very dear price.” She added, “If I had purchased a car with this many problems, I’d have wanted it to have been fixed or I’d have wanted my money back”.
Then there is Bronwen Kershaw. Again, I spoke to her in March, on the 19th. She was in the library and the only thing that she saw was a little notice there saying that it would be closed from the following day. Bronwen studies history and most of her books are actually in hard physical form. With the library being closed the following day, before the exams that were coming up in a couple of months’ time, she had to quickly get as many physical books as she could. There were not that many there, and all the other students were doing the same thing.
Bronwen had hoped that this process would perhaps set about the modernisation of university—surely the books should be online on JSTOR, or on some sort of online library catalogue. The universities need to modernise. She said what she had was “poor service” from March onwards. She received group emails; nothing was personalised. There was no interaction. She said that it was as if strike action had carried on in that university. One of her lecturers had poor internet connection at home, which meant she did not get any online tutorials because it was not possible. So, she felt abandoned and let down.
She then looked into how she would go about getting a refund, but it is not that easy. Then, 20 weeks ago, via the online platform Student Problems, I was interviewed about how a student gets a refund. Obviously, the contract is between the student and the university, so the student has to make a complaint against the university. Then, they have to exhaust the internal process, and only then can they go to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education. Their complaint will be balanced against what the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education says should be the standard of education expected. However, some students did not go along that path. I spoke to the host of the Student Problems website, Sam Rostron, and he asked, “Why don’t you think students are following this route? What are their concerns?” I said that many of them had said to me that they feared reprisals. They were only in their first or second year and they thought they might not get the grade that they should, so they felt that they did not want to upset the apple cart and would not pursue that route. They also said that, in a way, covid was a brand new situation, so they wanted to forgive the university in a way—perhaps it was trying its very best. This was also something that they had wanted to do all their life, so lots of students did not pursue any sort of refund.
Since then we have had the summer recess, and months and months have passed. The students went back to university, having been told they could return. The universities welcomed them and the Government said, “You can go back”. They thought that meant the universities would be up to speed, would be covid-compliant and would be able to teach online. However, that has not proved to be the case.
I am speaking now on behalf of parents from my constituency. Joe Egan from Wilmslow’s son was only at Newcastle University for 48 hours before he was told that all his tutorials and lectures would be online. If he had known that beforehand, he would have taken an Open University degree. Shirley Smith from Alderley Edge has a son who is a fresher at the University of Northampton. She told me that he has only been offered online teaching. She also raised concerns about the evacuation-style plan to get students home for Christmas. Bethan Weston from Wilmslow raised concerns about the mixed standard of lectures, among other issues. Her daughter is in accommodation with 23 others. She has not been able to socialise. She is living in a house, but because there are no communal areas, they are all sitting in the halls and on stairways to speak to one another. She is concerned about the debt, the lockdown and the students’ mental health issues. She said it compares to a prison camp. It is unacceptable. How were young students allowed to go back to university when universities did not have the capability to look after their students? Some of them have literally been locked up in student accommodation.
Another example comes from the Birley campus at Manchester Metropolitan University, posted on the Student Problems website. Some 1,700 students were told to self-isolate for 14 days. How was that news broken to them? They went to leave the campus and were told by security guards that they had to go back inside. There were no emails for a couple of hours. They did not know what was going on. They got no refund for their rent. They all said it was more like Her Majesty’s prison. They were then labelled as super-spreaders and looked down on by the general public. They said that was unfair. They had been told that they could go to university. What else were they to do?
My question to the Minister come from students in my constituency, parents and SAFER. The university has claimed tuition fees are a Government issue; the Government are saying they are a university issue; people are asking the Government to clarify who is responsible. If both university and Government are responsible, how and when will the issue be resolved? If it is a university issue, what pressure can Government bring to bear on the universities to get this sorted? What meetings are Government Ministers having with university students, so that they can explain their concerns? Can we have a simpler refund process? Finally, can there be an automatic refund for those who were locked down? Universities and Government must do the right thing by our young people and their families.
They say that a student’s time at university will be the best years of their life, but for thousands of students across the UK at the moment, it is a nightmare. Those of us who enjoyed our time at university are probably thinking that we are lucky that we are not them. They are locked up in their halls of residence, attending freshers events over Zoom and running the risk of contracting the virus during face-to-face teaching.
This year’s first-year university students already had to put up the hellish scandal of A-level results day and now they must contend with the shambles that is this Government’s advice to universities on covid-19. While the pandemic is no one’s fault, the way we deal with it must be. Tuition fees have been a controversial topic of debate over the past couple of decades—I was against them then and am against them now. Although it has been stated time and again, it cannot be said enough that education should be a right and not a privilege. We should not charge for it. Ironically, the Cabinet Ministers who were the driving force behind tripling tuition fees some years ago probably went to university free of charge and at the expense of the taxpayer. They have effectively pulled up the drawbridge behind them.
The commercialisation of higher education is a big shame for this country. Lumbering 21-year-olds with £50,000-worth of debt is absolutely disgraceful. When we look at other countries across the world we see thriving, high-income countries investing in their higher education while we push the cost on to students and their families. We will hear again, “It’s fine. You won’t have to repay it until you start earning £26,000-plus a year,” but the psychological toll that that massive amount of debt leaves on an individual is not mentioned. We all know that pay now or pay later, debt is still debt, and those from lower socio-economic backgrounds will always take longer to pay it back and will suffer harsher consequences.
At the moment, university students are paying £9,250 a year to attend university, or, as some of them say, £9,250 to effectively live in prison-like conditions. Students in Manchester have dubbed their university “Her Majesty’s Prison, Manchester University” because fences have been put up to keep them in. Students are paying to stay in halls while watching their lectures online over Zoom and many other platforms. International students from Europe have been asked to come to this country, but, having left their countries, they are attending their lectures online.
I studied biomedical sciences for my first degree, and I think of all the biomedical scientists at the moment who are in their first year of university and probably struggling to attend lectures online. I think about how they get on without all the laboratory work that they have to do. They are simply not getting the education that they need for that course, and I expect that that is the case for many courses. That is all off the back of shoddy advice that called for face-to-face teaching to resume, despite everyone saying that it was a terrible idea. As a result, approximately 2,600 university students and staff have contracted the virus, and many more have had to self-isolate.
The decision to return to face-to-face teaching was dangerous, as has been said by the University and College Union and unions at Manchester, Leeds and elsewhere. They have explicitly stated that it has put staff and students in harm’s way. It is ridiculous to tell students to return to face-to-face teaching, only for them to get to university to find that they are sitting in front of their laptops in their halls of residence. After sending students back to live in communal halls, what happened next was inevitable: a spike in coronavirus cases in university cities. Once again, that was entirely avoidable if we had planned properly for the second wave. It is a scandal that students are literally being made to pay for this.
It is ludicrous to expect students to continue paying extortionate tuition fees when they are not receiving a full service. With any other service, if a customer was dissatisfied or something prevented them from receiving a service to the advertised standard, it would be reasonable for them to demand a refund, so why is it any different for students? We cannot treat university education as a commodity in one respect and not in others. It is either a market commodity, in which case a refund can be requested for a poor service, or it is not, in which case it should be free.
Charging individuals overall to pursue higher education is wrong at the most basic level, but to continue to charge them now is profoundly wrong. It is simply outrageous. The Government must ultimately consider cancelling tuition fees entirely, but in the meantime they should consider refunding the cost of tuition for the entire time that students’ university experience is impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I thank Chris Evans for securing this important debate.
Taken together, these five petitions reflect the inexcusable way that students have been treated during this pandemic. I share the sentiment behind each of them, and I stand in solidarity with the students in Leicester and across the country who have stood up against their mistreatment, but I believe that the demands of the petitions, which focus on partial rebates of tuition fees, do not go far enough. After all, the current crisis is not the fault of students. It was this Government who failed to listen to trade unions and scientific experts and allowed students to attend universities just as coronavirus cases were beginning to rise.
In late August, the University and College Union warned against students returning to university. It rightly raised fears that the migration of more than 1 million students across the UK risked doing untold damage to people’s health and exacerbating the worst health crisis of our lifetimes. That was especially the case given the Government’s failure to introduce a properly functioning track-and-trace system and the fact that they do not have any UK-wide plans to test students and staff regularly. A few weeks after the University and College Union’s warning, the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies recommended a shift to online learning
“unless face-to-face teaching is absolutely essential”,
yet that was ignored too. The result has been as devastating as it was predictable.
I studied mathematics, statistics and computers for my first degree in Coventry, and I can tell hon. Members that the numbers do not add up. To date, there have been more than 45,000 positive cases of coronavirus on university campuses, including 500 at the University of Leicester and a further 500 at De Montfort University in my constituency of Leicester East. Leicester has been in perpetual lockdown, or special measures, for the longest time of any city, yet we still face those problems.
I pay tribute to all university staff across both universities in Leicester, who are producing innovative solutions, including in-house regular testing, which is unique to the University of Leicester, flexible accommodation contracts and blended learning. They are doing all that in exceptional, difficult circumstances to provide for our students in Leicester.
The fault does not rest with universities. According to the National Union of Students, 20% of students have confirmed that they will not be able to pay their rent and essential bills this term, and three in four students are anxious about paying their rent, which demonstrates that they are desperately in need of urgent financial support from the Government. As we have heard, students have been forced to stay in their university halls, which has placed an intolerable strain on their mental health. In some cases, fences have been built around the accommodation that, just months ago, students were assured would be safe to attend, and they are being forced to pay £9,000 per year for the privilege.
Under the Conservatives, universities have been treated as private businesses and left at the mercy of market forces while top salaries soar and students pay more for less. Tuition fees have trebled and maintenance grants have been scrapped, leaving the poorest graduates with an average debt of £57,000. A University of Manchester student said recently:
“We’re being treated as though we exist for profit, for money, and nothing else.”
Will the Minister tell universities to halt in-person teaching as soon as possible, help students stay at home after Christmas if necessary, and issue clear guidance about moving as much non-essential work as possible online, in line with other workplaces? The Government must work with student representatives to ensure that students are not forced to pay for the suffering that they have been forced to endure.
Will the Government move beyond that and scrap tuition fees for good? We all benefit from an educated society. Education is not just vital for our economy; it lets people develop their talents and overcome injustices and inequalities, and helps us understand each other and form social bonds. The last decade of extortionate tuition fees has been a failed experiment, which has saddled young people with debt, deterred working-class people from gaining a higher education and turned our universities into profit-seeking businesses. Can the Government simply follow the example of most of our European neighbours by scrapping fees and ensuring that young people are not punished for seeking an education?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I also want to thank my hon. Friend Chris Evans for securing this timely and important debate.
Covid-19 hit the student population hard in spring and summer this year, particularly the three universities in my Liverpool, Riverside constituency. The immediate response was to shift to online learning wherever possible. Students were advised to return home for their third term and some—although by no means all—university accommodation offered refunds. The House of Commons Petitions Committee’s second report, “The impact of Covid-19 on university students” published in July, acknowledged that, although it shifted the responsibility on to individual universities and student accommodation to assess all calls for refunds from individual students. Seventy-eight per cent of students surveyed reported being dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with their learning experience in that period, compared with 84% being satisfied or very satisfied in the previous year. I think that if the survey were done again now, we would find the levels of dissatisfaction to be even higher.
Despite the lack of an effective test, track and trace system, hundreds of thousands of students were encouraged back on to campus in September and we saw the impact of that almost immediately. Rates of infection spiralled among the student population, particularly for first years in halls of residence. Forty thousand students have tested positive for covid-19 and thousands more have been forced to self-isolate. Far from experiencing the same quality of student experience in freshers’ week, as so many universities promised, for many students the reality was being locked down in small rooms, only having access to online teaching and a socially isolated experience, with deteriorating mental health. We have seen young adults, most of them away from their homes for the first time, being locked in and their premises patrolled by guards as they are charged extortionate amounts of money for poor-quality food parcels. Two weeks ago, we saw the situation in Fallowfield in Manchester, where the university students were fenced in in their halls.
Now, students are being encouraged to leave for home between 2 and
It is always a pleasure to serve under you in the Chair, Sir David. I thank my hon. Friend Chris Evans for opening today’s debate so well. I also thank the University of York and York St John University for the support they have given students at this challenging time. They have worked closely with the student bodies to overcome insurmountable challenges and to make the campuses and the universities as safe as they possibly can. However, that does not detract from the experience that students have had over the past few months. Isolated, often challenged with mental health crises and having to conduct their social life and teaching in a strange city and a strange place. It is not the expectation that students have come to deserve, let alone have to pay for. I am pleased that the extraordinary efforts in our city have meant that, despite the initial peak in infection, infection rates have fallen significantly, but we are not over the hurdle yet and could be in this situation for another 12 months or—who knows—even more. That is why the debate is so timely, in order to help us get things right for the future.
I thank the thousands of students from York who signed the five petitions before us, some of which call for the reimbursement of fees during periods of industrial action that were clearly intended to improve the working environment of our teaching staff—who are dedicated to students—protesting casualisation in the sector and its impact on their terms and conditions. Hundreds also signed petitions about refunds, partial refunds and the lowering of tuition fees, which the Treasury must look at. However, I will look at the far more fundamental issue behind it: the broken model of university funding. I put it firmly on the record that the issues highlighted in these petitions point to why tuition must be free. The risk currently falls on students, and if universities were to reimburse their students, they would become bankrupt, so the Treasury and the Minister must find a solution. Labour has a solution.
The university sector is underfunded. Higher education is the engine to economic success, and we need it to attract investment that produces a high economic yield and recognises how both tuition and research places the UK’s economy on a global footing. Investment brings return, but there is still no certainty over the future of research funding. With no future EU agreement, what will happen to the Horizon programme? We are yet to hear of the Government’s shared prosperity fund and the impact it will have on university research. We also know that the international purchase of UK education, through our international students, is significantly at risk: numbers have reduced. Universities have put incredible investment into supporting those students, who obviously pay extortionate amounts for that service yet arrive in a locked-down, strange country before they commence their online studies. What are we doing to our students and young people? Signing these petitions shows that students have lost confidence in a sector that was once the jewel in the crown of the UK. We have also heard about the real impact that this is having on the welfare of students, as my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn set out, and on their mental health and wider wellbeing.
The whole funding model, with the spotlight being shone on it, must be reviewed. We are all aware of the discourse over undergraduate, masters and research programmes in the light of the online provision that we have heard much about. However, online provision does not replace in-person tuition, which helps people to nurture students to reach their best, which we want for this generation of students and for those who are applying to university at this time.
We face a serious economic crisis. This is not new, but the UK’s performance has consistently lagged behind similar economies for the past decade. In addition, the productivity of the economy has been low. Education—at all levels—is proven to be the single biggest factor in significantly improving economic performance. It is the one thing that brings about social mobility. It also opens up new doors and new avenues for people to learn. However, as these petitions have shown, having to pay for tuition is a major cause of discord and has meant that many who could benefit from a university education will not access it due to the fees structure.
Therefore, we as a country need to invest in the skills to deliver the economic output to which we aspire. Much of that will need to be in new areas of growth—digital, biosciences, advanced technology—as well as where there are recognised skills shortages, in areas such as engineering. We need therefore need to attract students to fire up our economy, and I want to ensure that in my constituency, we also find a pathway—through both further and higher education—for all those who are falling out of the labour market, as we re-orient skills for the future economy.
I draw the Minister’s attention to the BioYorkshire project, with which I know she is familiar. That investment will bring 4,000 job opportunities in York and Yorkshire, will ensure that start-ups and spin-out companies innovate 1,200 businesses, and will return £5 billion in gross value added to the Treasury. This not about cost to the Treasury but about investment in skills for those kinds of outcomes, not least in the light of what our economy now faces. Putting fees in the way of that is neither smart nor beneficial. This is our one opportunity to pivot the fortunes of our economy significantly.
Someone who is currently out of work will be nervous about what is on the horizon. They will not want to risk investing in their future if they do not know what it will bring apart from significant debt. That is why the petitioners’ call shines a light on why university tuition should be fully funded in future. Universities have a serious role to play in our economic recovery, which must be the Government’s prime focus, and no barriers should be placed in the way of that.
Although many students can engage in online learning, 40% of courses offered in my city include an element of laboratory or clinical practice, so students need to be safely present in person to complete their studies. Many students are frustrated that, because of the practical nature of their degrees, they have not been able to complete them and qualify, particularly those whose courses included teaching and clinical practice. For clinical practice, those students were not able to help the NHS in their final year because of the current situation. We need to ensure that recompense is in place to enable students to recoup their losses. They clearly have an important role to play in supporting the infrastructure of our country through this pandemic.
I am sorry to put it in these terms, but we now have a marketised education system, which is why students are right to call into question the value of their investment. It changes the relationship between student and university, which should be one of co-production, working together to create academic success, leading research, and stretching and growing people, with universities working hand in glove with students.
Online learning provides opportunities if properly invested in. About eight years ago, I spoke with a medical academic about the possibilities of remote learning. He told me about how he had organised global seminars, bringing together the world’s top surgeons and academics to advance medical practice and join clinical techniques and research with practitioners who wanted to advance the frontiers of medicine. Cost barriers restrained opportunity, however. If we place those costs on our NHS at a time like this, we will lose out on those kinds of opportunities. That example can be extrapolated to engineering or environmental science. We could have high-quality online learning, drawing from the best in the world, to advance people’s opportunities to engage in a future economy.
The world of education is changing significantly, so we must look once again at how we invest in skills to ensure that students are at the core of the future economy. There must be no barriers, which fees create. That is a failed model. Vitally, we must look not only at what should happen with recompense now, but at how we can get things right in future. Unlocking our economy and giving people every opportunity they deserve: that is the game-changer.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I thank everyone who took part in the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for—I am going to say his constituency wrong—Islwyn (Chris Evans) highlighted the amount of debt that students leave university with; issues raised by students; the anger and resentment that they feel at the moment; and the issue of mental health support. It is a shocking statistic that every week a student takes their own life. Regardless of any political opinions, we should be united in saying that we need to do something about that, so I thank my hon. Friend for drawing it to our attention.
Esther McVey was right to highlight the cost of a university degree and the need to move publications online and make things more accessible. I agree on the need for openness and honesty about the experience that students can expect, so that we do not repeat this problem in January and they have full knowledge of what to expect before they get there. Then they can make the decision, if they wish, to go to the Open University or their local university.
We heard from my hon. Friend Bell Ribeiro-Addy. As people know, the Labour party is against the use of tuition fees. My hon. Friend spoke about the impact on people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, how they often have to spend longer repaying the debt, and how the system is therefore very unfair, and about the need to plan properly for the second wave. We must not repeat this problem in January.
My hon. Friend Claudia Webbe highlighted the damage from not having a plan for the return in September; the need for test and trace to protect staff and students; the difficulties that of course people have experienced in Leicester, given the restrictions that they have been under for an incredibly long time; and the need for us to recognise publicly the value of our universities. We all benefit from an educated society.
We heard from my hon. Friend Kim Johnson. I am slightly biased because I went to the University of Liverpool, but it is a great city to go to. She referred to shocking statistics on the decline in student satisfaction; the need for effective test, track and trace; the issue of mental health; and the problems that there have been with accommodation.
We heard from my hon. Friend Rachael Maskell, whose words are always so considered, thoughtful and thought-provoking. I really loved the final message in her speech, about getting this right for the future. She spoke about the need for people to be part of a co-production, working together towards academic success, and about how marketisation has damaged that relationship, which is so important.
I am, of course, grateful to the Petitions Committee for bringing this matter forward. I thank all the staff working in universities at the moment, given the incredibly difficult situation that they face. Often, the discourse is just about the tutors working in universities, but of course there are also the people working in catering, who are finding themselves redundant at the moment, the people working in security, the people working in the libraries and the people working in administration. Many of the staff in those jobs are currently on furlough, because of the uncertain situation we are in. I express our thanks to each and every one of them.
The existence of these petitions will come as no surprise to anyone who has been following the unfolding events in higher education. Many students are angry and frustrated, and they have every right to feel like that. This year’s intake had to deal with the fiasco over A-levels, which resulted from a combination of stubbornness and a prejudice that meant that the Government could not bring themselves to trust the judgment of teachers. Just like the need to fairly determine GCSE and A-level grades, the reopening of universities in the autumn was bound to need addressing. The movement of almost 2 million people around the UK and their randomised mixing in confined shared spaces such as halls of residence and houses in multiple occupancy were guaranteed to result in a rise in covid cases. Such mass migration could have been seriously contemplated only in the presence of a fully functioning test, track and trace system, as many hon. Members mentioned. That means one that is fast, accurate and easily accessible, but what we have had has been utterly shambolic.
At the time when universities reopened, people were being asked to drive hundreds of miles for a test while local test centres stood empty. Universities had been promised thousands of testing kits, but they never materialised. The mushrooming of cases was predictable and predicted. It led to the experience that students were promised and so naturally expected being radically different from that which they had to endure. For this experience, they are being required to take on large amounts of debt by the current funding system, which was also mentioned by hon. Members. The system not only leaves students owing debts that in large part will never be repaid, but leaves universities competing in a marketplace for students and reliant on the income that each student brings with their fees. Labour has said time and again that that system is neither fair nor sustainable. The current situation makes that abundantly clear.
The financial pressures on students were a matter of great concern before the end of the last academic year, and that is set to continue. The NUS survey of 10,000 students in March and its follow-up in September showed that 50% of them relied on income from employment to support themselves. Half reported that
“the income of someone who supports them financially has been impacted by Covid-19”,
and three quarters expected to struggle financially over the coming months.
Students cannot top up with universal credit, and yet there has been no acknowledgement by the Government of the impact of, first, the tier 2 and tier 3 restrictions or, now, the national lockdown on a student’s ability to support themselves financially. Many students with part-time work in bars or restaurants would work right up to Christmas before returning home. Now they must return by
The insecurity coming from the struggle to pay bills, find rent and put food on the table can only make worse the mental stress resulting from the chaotic circumstances around isolation and accommodation lockdowns. A huge group of young people have found themselves away from home for the first time, with limited opportunities to make new connections and build friendships. This is an extremely toxic situation, and I am deeply concerned for those who found themselves adrift in it.
In a letter I received in September, the Minister assured me that the Government’s “commitment to supporting students” is “unwavering” and demonstrated in “a range of initiatives” put in place to support “financial hardship” and “mental health”. However, I see no evidence of such commitment. The only thing that could be described as “unwavering” has been use of the figure of £256 million, as highlighted by Jim Dickinson from Wonkhe.
The £256 million has done an awful lot of work. It was first employed on
That £256 million was also employed on
The same pot of money went, on
“We have asked providers to prioritise the mental health and wellbeing of students during this period” and that the DFE had provided them with financial support in the form of £256 million. On
Time and time again, the Government have spurned opportunities to do the right thing and provide concrete help for students. A cohort of young people are looking for emotional and material support, and they have so far found themselves abandoned by this Administration, who shamelessly repeat “£256 million” in response to every single question asked of them about students.
When will the Government finally provide new and adequate funding to be directed towards university hardship funds? The extension of funding for the Student Minds website is welcome, but the mental health challenges facing students are more severe than was anticipated only a few months ago. What further support will the Minister provide? When will the Government properly invest in eradicating digital poverty and ensure that all students have the technology to learn? Will they look again at the proposals for providing free internet access for online learning resources?
I want to take this opportunity to mention the fantastic work of student unions up and down the country. I know from my conversations with them that, although the Government did not anticipate the problems that students and universities would face, they did. They delivered freshers’ week, whether online or in person, with extra covid restrictions and at very short notice. That made new students feel welcomed and able to settle in as best they could. They set up covid-secure social spaces so that new students could continue to meet. Many student unions have been delivering food parcels to students while they were self-isolating and in lockdown.
When the lockdown was first introduced in March, the Government refused to get universities around the table to agree a joint approach and offered only the flimsiest of advice. It was the student unions across the UK that launched a campaign to get their universities to commit to no-detriment policies and ensure that students get the grades they deserve. They successfully lobbied universities and accommodation providers to release students from tenancy contracts for accommodation they no longer required. They continue to show their value as a voice and a source of support for the students they represent. What discussions is the Minister having with the NUS so that she can listen to the advice they can give about the real issues facing students right now and support them in the excellent work they are doing?
Students have a right not only to be heard but to be given answers. What is the Minister doing to ensure that universities have plans to make up for lost learning and to guarantee students’ learning outcomes for the duration of their degrees? Instead of endlessly issuing guidance, when will she sit down and work with universities and provide the support they need to ensure students get what they are entitled to—what they were promised by universities and the Government?
The Minister has said that the Office for Students regularly reviews online tuition, so how exactly is that being conducted? How many courses in how many universities is it looking at, and how often is it doing that? What is being done about those who need placements to complete their qualifications, many of whom have been badly affected by the pandemic? What is being done to help PhD students who are yet to complete their projects due to covid restrictions but who are running out of funding and are having their requests for extensions refused? What about masters students in a similar position? And please do not refer to the £256 million pot again.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate, and I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to a number of the points that he and other hon. Members have made.
I acknowledge the significant impact that covid-19 has had on staff, students and higher education providers. The Government do not for one minute underestimate that. This pandemic has been hard for all of us, but in so many ways young people have been disproportionately impacted. Students have been left facing a number of challenges. I am hugely grateful for the resilience, innovation and dedication shown by staff and students over the past nine months. The constant uncertainty has made things worse, but the improvements in mass testing and constant scientific advances, including a potential vaccine, offer a glimmer of hope.
We have heard some compelling speeches today focusing on the case for a tuition fee refund. I repeat that the Government get how hard the ramifications of covid have been. In fact, they have been at the forefront of my mind throughout. Since March, therefore, I have emphasised the importance of keeping universities open during the pandemic, as I reiterated in my recent letter to higher education providers. We simply cannot ask young people to put their education and lives on hold indefinitely. The human cost of lost opportunity and damaged social mobility would be immense. The Government were elected on a manifesto to level up; curtailing the ambitions and dreams of our young is not the way to achieve that.
We listened to the scientific advice, which informed our higher education guidance at every stage, including the return to university. The hon. Member for Islwyn and many other hon. Members have called for a blanket tuition fee refund, but it should be noted that the Government do not set the minimum level of tuition fees. We set the maximum, and we have been very clear that if higher education providers want to continue to charge the maximum, they must ensure that the quality, quantity and accessibility of tuition is maintained. We have been working closely with the Office for Students to ensure that, and we will continue to do so.
We have heard accounts of students who feel that the quality of their education has declined. My message to them is that there is a system in place that can help. First, a student should pursue the official complaints procedure at their university. If they remain unsatisfied, they should go to the OIA. That can lead to some form of tuition fee refund. Without the first stage, institutions would not have the opportunity for early resolution of complaints with students, so it is important.
I hear the concern, including from my right hon. Friend Esther McVey, that students may be reluctant to come forward. I reassure all students, however, that the OIA’s good practice framework is clear that there must be appropriate levels of confidentiality without disadvantage and that providers should make that clear to all students.
OIA cases will normally be completed within 90 days, and the process is designed to make it simple and easy for students. The form is online. It asks for basic information and a summary of the complaint. The OIA requires the provider rather than the student to send it all the information. Some hon. Members have argued that the policy places too much on the shoulders of students.
The whole purpose of having that first stage is for the university to have a chance to deal with the complaint, as there might be opportunities to do so that do not include refunds. I was trying to express the fact that, in the formal process with the Office of the Independent Adjudicator, there are protections for students against any potential backlash that might be feared from going against the university. The degree of anonymity is hindered—if it is completely anonymous, it is impossible to pursue a complete complaints process—but there are protections for students.
As I was saying, hon. Members have argued that the policy places too much on the shoulders of students and that we should instead adopt Government finance-backed refunds. I wholeheartedly dispute the suggestion that all students are being let down. Tuition does look different, because we are in the midst of a global pandemic, but different does not have to mean inferior.
Universities have invested heavily in innovative and dynamic learning and have utilised technology. I have seen many examples of interactive lessons that staff have worked tirelessly, hour after hour, to produce. In fact, a recent survey by Unite showed that 81% of students were happy that they did not defer, and four in five agreed that, although it is not how they expected their first university year to be, they valued their time there.
I am not for one moment suggesting that there have not been some institutions, or some faculties within them, that may not have given students the learning they deserve, as we have heard in accounts today. For those students, the process is in place; that is exactly why it was set up. The majority of students, however, have been supported by hard-working staff, who have invested hour after hour to support students in their learning. There has been an enormous effort made throughout the higher education sector to maintain the high quality expected by this Government. In fact, when done well, online learning takes many more hours to produce and costs more, as the fixed costs—including labour—remain the same and are combined with additional technology costs.
Yes, universities are autonomous institutions, but as a Government, we have a responsibility to the millions of students studying across the country to ensure that their education can continue and that it continues in a way that meets the high quality bar that we usually expect, and that they expect.
The findings of the Petitions Committee inquiry were clear that although students who are entitled to a refund should be able to access information about how to claim, a wide-scale refund should not be the way forward, and we agree. A range of guidance for students and providers already exists—from the OFS, the Competition and Markets Authority, the OIA and the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education—and we have been working to highlight and co-ordinate that advice even more for students. Universities must anyway adhere to consumer law and make their complaints process, and the OIA’s process, clear to students. The NUS has promoted this process during the pandemic, as have I, especially on student-facing media.
As the Petitions Committee recommended, we have established a working group that includes the NUS, the OFS, Universities UK, the OIA and the CMA. The OFS is working on a comms campaign, and a new page is now on its website that pulls together existing guidance on consumer issues. The OIA is consulting on new arrangements for dealing with complaints from groups of students, to speed up the process and ensure that those students who have a degree of commonality can be brought together in one complaint. I am also working on additional ways to further promote the rights of students and the processes they should follow, including working with Martin Lewis and his Money Saving Expert team.
Further to the comments made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton, I want every student to know that they do have consumer rights. The CMA produced guidance on this issue earlier in the year and, for higher education providers, it is clear: universities should have been clear before the start of the academic year about what students could expect in these extraordinary circumstances. If students feel they have not got what they expected, they should follow the process. As outlined by the CMA, each student has a contractual agreement, and that agreement will differ per institution, which is another reason why a blanket system of refunds would not necessarily work.
Once again, let me be clear: it is not acceptable for students to receive anything less than the high-quality education they expect from our world-leading sector. A change in the mode of delivery to online or blended learning should not mean that quality declines. This is not a case of “pay the same and get less”; this is about providers changing their mode of delivery in an unprecedented situation to prioritise public health.
Providers will be best placed to be informed about decisions regarding the proportions of online and in-person learning, working with their local Public Health England teams. There are so many examples of innovative providers and the work they have done. I will highlight just a few. The University of Leeds utilised virtual classroom technologies, enabling students in Leeds and those studying remotely to engage together, and this has been seen in many universities. The University of Northampton used webinar software to successfully replicate a mock courtroom scenario, and the University of Sheffield’s faculty of engineering developed an approach to remote teaching of practical elements, shared with the sector. Some universities, such as Cambridge, have sent science, technology, engineering and mathematics students items of lab equipment to work with at home, and there are many, many more examples.
The OFS has stipulated that quality must be maintained and that the conditions of registration must continue to be met. It is directly engaging with those providers that have moved their provision online due to the coronavirus restrictions and is assessing material to check that the quality and quantity of provision are maintained and that it is accessible. Students can raise their concerns directly with the OFS.
However, tuition fees do cover much more than simply teaching: they include the support services that universities offer, such as mental health and wellbeing, as well as the provision of study spaces, library resources and much more. It is clear that these important services must be maintained, especially when students are isolating, in regards to wellbeing, mental health and communications. We as a Government have been very clear about that.
To answer the question asked directly by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton regarding my engagement with students, which was also posed by Emma Hardy, I have regularly engaged with the NUS. I have engaged with the OFS student panel and with students who are present for the various visits I make on a regular basis, particularly the working groups of care leavers who are students. I have also done a magnitude of student-facing media, answering questions in online forums. I believe that is essential, because I should be speaking to students and the sector, detailing our policy and responding to their queries.
Rather than focusing on wide-scale refunds that in reality would make little difference to the money in students’ pockets—and let us not forget that more than 50% of students never pay back their full student debt—the Government are focusing on the outcomes of the higher education experience. We are focusing on ensuring that the courses lead to qualifications, and working hard so that students are supported and safe. Drawing on the expertise of the higher education taskforce that I set up, we have been providing robust public health advice and guidance to universities, so I dispute the claim made earlier in the debate that the Government have not given clarity to universities.
From the start of the pandemic my priority has been to protect student mental health and wellbeing, and we have asked providers to prioritise that. We have worked closely with the Office for Students to create the Student Space to address the additional mental health challenges that covid presents. That is a £3 million project, to be delivered with Student Minds, and it has recently been extended. That is on top of wider Government support that includes £9 million for charities. We monitor it all the time. My heart goes out to all the families who have experienced student suicide in the past few months, and to the friends and all the people who knew those students. It is an awful tragedy, and no words can give an account of how I, or other hon. Members here today, feel about it.
The hon. Members for Leicester East (Claudia Webbe) and for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle raised the issue of student hardship and the £256 million fund. We have clarified that providers can use that money for the entire academic year. It is for student hardship—for digital devices, for mental health support—so it is right that we keep referring to it. We were quite up front at the beginning about how it could be utilised. Before the beginning of the academic year—before August—we also outlined that £23 million per month could be utilised. I am afraid I shall continue to use that figure, because it was for the entire academic year. Student hardship is something that we continue to monitor, and each university normally has its own hardship pots as well. The Department has also allocated £195 million for technology devices for educational settings, for which care leavers at higher education providers qualify.
I have made the point that I think the £256 million fund is a little stretched at the moment. Unless I am mistaken, the £195 million fund for digital access is available only for students who were care leavers; it is not available universally for all students.
Yes, that is exactly what I said. The Department has allocated that money across educational settings and care leavers in higher education can access that. However, we have encouraged universities to prioritise digital poverty and accessibility. Accessibility is something that the OFS has been strong on, because everyone should have access to education of quality. The Secretary of State has also commissioned the chair of the OFS to conduct a review of digital learning and teaching, including digital poverty.
Is the Minister aware that, more generally, a number of schools did not receive the devices that were promised by the Government before the end of the summer, and that when many of them came back in September they were sent emails saying that the number of devices they had been promised for the children, on the basis of what is allowed for care leavers and so on, was reduced?
You will correct me if I am wrong, Sir David, but I believe that question is slightly out of scope for a petition on higher education. In relation to higher education, my understanding is that the care leavers who have needed those devices have received them. If any hon. Member knows of cases to the contrary, I would be more than happy to pick that matter up.
I agree with many of the points that have been made about the crucial role that universities play in social mobility, including the point, made by Rachael Maskell, about the economic recovery. Universities will be vital in that mission as we progress.
This has been an unprecedented year, so it is really important to recognise the tireless work of university lecturers, administrators and support staff over the past few months, and how students have adapted. However, I will make one message clear today: students have not been forgotten. I will continue to work across Government to ensure that universities uphold their obligations under consumer law. We must ensure that students and staff are safe and supported, and that students receive the high quality of education that they rightly expect.
Sir David, you have chaired many debates over the years, including many I have spoken in, so you will know that my constituency has been referred to as “Iswine” and “Islin”. Indeed, in a debate on diabetes that you chaired—it was a number of years ago, so I do not know whether you remember it—I was referred to as the hon. Member for insulin. [Laughter.] I make that point just to apologise to some of the petitioners, because I tripped over their names and hope they will forgive me. They were making really important points.
This has been a very passionate debate. We have heard contributions from my hon. Friend Bell Ribeiro-Addy, Claudia Webbe, my hon. Friends the Members for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson) and for York Central (Rachael Maskell), and Esther McVey. We had a fantastic summing-up speech by my hon. Friend Emma Hardy, as well as the response from the Minister.
The wonderful thing about petitions debates is that we know we are debating something of central importance to people. The various petitions we have discussed today received nearly 1 million signatures, which proves how deeply parents, staff and, most crucially, students are concerned about these various issues.
Personally, although I heard what the Minister said, I am still concerned about the number of complaints that have come through, and I am really worried that the system will positively groan under the weight of the number of complaints that are bound to come. As I said in my speech, if complaints to the OIA go up by just 1%, that would be a tenfold increase. That would be a real problem, so I hope that the Government will understand it and develop policies to address it.
Ultimately, however, the problem we have is that universities have marketed themselves over the years with an idealistic view of student life. Because of covid-19, which is nobody’s fault, such an idealistic view can no longer be achieved. If people hope for the type of student experiences that I enjoyed, and that I think everybody in this room enjoyed, that is not going to happen. However, what people do expect and should receive is the top-quality education that this country is renowned for throughout the world. There should be no excuse about that. When people sign up for university, they are making a massive financial commitment, and the Government should step up to that as well.
Members made many other points tonight, but I will focus on the point that my friend the right hon. Member for Tatton made about the Open University. The way things are, if people are just going to enrol and end up doing only online courses, they might as well stay with the Open University. That will be a real challenge for universities in the coming years. It will cause a fall in revenue and the Government will have to revisit some of the issues that we have raised today.
I will end by thanking everybody who has taken part in what has been a fantastic, measured and, at times, impassioned debate. I thank you all on behalf of the Petitions Committee. Finally, may I thank you, Sir David, for your measured and fair chairmanship of the debate?
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered e-petitions 300528, 302855, 306494, 324762, and 552911, relating to university tuition fees.