Universities: Brexit and Coronavirus

Department for Education written question – answered on 18th June 2020.

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Photo of Baroness Randerson Baroness Randerson Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Transport)

To ask Her Majesty's Government what assessment they have made of the causes of the changes in position of UK universities since 2015 as measured by the QS World University Rankings; and what measures they intend to introduce to support universities to address any additional financial pressures as a result of (1) the COVID-19 pandemic, and (2) the end of the transition period of the UK's withdrawal from the EU. [T]

Photo of Baroness Berridge Baroness Berridge Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for International Trade) (Minister for Women), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

The UK is a world-leading destination for study. According to the QS World Rankings, the UK has consistently had 4 higher education institutions in the top 10 since 2011/12. Four UK universities are currently in the world’s top 10 and 18 in the top 100, second only to the US (this data is taken from the QS World University Rankings 2021).

The government recognises that the COVID-19 outbreak will have an unparalleled impact on all elements of the global and UK economy and the higher education sector is no exception. We have been working closely with the sector to monitor the likely impacts of COVID-19 on student numbers in 2020-21 and we stand ready to support with various mitigations.

On 4 May, my right hon. Friend, the Secretary of State for Education, announced a package of measures to stabilise university admissions this autumn and to ensure sustainability in higher education at a time of unprecedented uncertainty. Temporary student number controls will be put in place for domestic and EU students for the academic year 2020/21 to ensure a fair, structured distribution of students across providers. As part of this package, a new University Research Sustainability Taskforce will focus on the sustainability of research capabilities, capacity and activities undertaken in universities and study this in the context of wider higher education operational implications and issues arising from the response to COVID-19.

The government has also pulled forward an estimated £2.6 billion worth of forecast tuition fee payments to ease cashflow pressure this autumn. It has also committed to pulling forward quality-related research funding for higher education providers in England in the current academic year by £100 million. The measures to stabilise admissions for this autumn also serve to reduce the risk to financial sustainability across the higher education sector.

This package of measures comes on top of the unprecedented package of support for businesses already announced by my right hon. Friend, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, including the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/coronavirus-job-retention-scheme) and a range of business loan schemes, to help pay wages, keep staff employed and support businesses whose viability is threatened by the COVID-19 outbreak. We have confirmed that providers are eligible to apply for these government support packages, including business loan support schemes, which the Office for Students estimates could be worth at least £700 million to the sector.

To support international student recruitment, both the government and the higher education sector are committed to being as flexible as possible in accommodating applicants’ current circumstances, including if they are unable to travel to the UK in time for the start of the next academic year. We will also publish a review of the International Education Strategy this autumn, which will respond to the new context and the challenges that are posed by COVID-19 across all education settings.

In addition to our response to COVID-19, the government is working alongside stakeholders to support students and the UK higher education workforce to manage the transition period. This involves working to solidify existing global relationships and establish important new global relationships as well as promoting an open and welcoming message to all international – EU and non-EU – students to wish to come to the UK to study at our world-class education institutions.

Finally, the government remains committed to international exchanges in education, both with the EU and beyond. As part of its negotiations with the EU, the government remains open to considering participation in some elements of the next Erasmus+ programme, provided that the terms are in the UK’s interests. This will be subject to our ongoing negotiations with the EU. We will, in parallel with the negotiations, continue to develop a domestic alternative to Erasmus+, to ensure we are prepared for every eventuality.

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