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Further and Higher Education

Volume 677: debated on Monday 22 June 2020

What steps he is taking to help further education colleges to support students studying vocational and practical subjects during the covid-19 outbreak. (903516)

What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on steps to support the further and higher education sectors during the covid-19 outbreak. (903527)

What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on steps to support the further and higher education sectors during the covid-19 outbreak. (903532)

What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on steps to support the further and higher education sectors during the covid-19 outbreak. (903552)

I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Dr Hudson) will join me in thanking all staff in further and higher education for their work in responding to this unprecedented challenge—they have done a fantastic job. In further education we have introduced flexibilities and encouraged online teaching so that learners can complete their courses as planned. Colleges are open and we want to get all learners back into college as soon as possible.

The coronavirus pandemic throws into sharp relief the importance of food production and security, and the critical areas of health and social care. Newton Rigg College in Penrith in my constituency has over 1,000 learners and 130 staff, and trains people in vital areas such as agriculture, land-based studies and health and social care. The college has now been listed for possible closure in July 2021 by its host institution, Askham Bryan College, creating much uncertainty over its future. Does my hon. Friend agree that colleges such as Newton Rigg are vital for our rural communities, and will the Department for Education and other Departments work with me and local stakeholders to try to secure a viable and sustainable future for that prized asset of both Cumbria and, indeed, the wider UK?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Our further education colleges are vital for supporting young people in rural communities to get the skills they need. I am aware that the governors at Askham Bryan College have made an in-principle decision to close the Newton Rigg campus from July 2021. Indeed, my hon. Friend and I have now met twice with the Further Education Commissioner to discuss this, at my hon. Friend’s request, so I know he will continue to campaign on this issue. My officials are working with the college and stakeholders to ensure that learners and communities in and around Eden Valley continue to have access to high-quality further education.

The reintroduced graduate work visa could indeed help universities and colleges to attract international students and to recover from covid-19: it is just an appalling reflection on Tory Governments that we have been without such a visa for such a long time. Can the Minister say what discussions she has had about extending the graduate visa offered to students who are already here on tier 4 visas, so that both the education sector and the wider economy can use their skills in our recovery?

There is a lot of work going on to ensure that we support the university sector through this crisis. On 20 April, the Home Office updated its visa guidance to provide greater certainty for international higher education students in the UK impacted by coronavirus. On 22 May, the Home Office announced that visas due to expire before 31 May would be extended to 31 July 2020 for those unable to return home. More work will be done in this area.

Post covid, the stiff competition for international students will intensify. EU students make up a third of the international student body, but any deregulation of fees for EU students will sharply reduce their numbers. Can the Minister confirm that there is no intention to cause such damage, and that EU students in England will retain their home student fees status?

Of course, international students are a key concern for the sector at the moment and, as my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Universities outlined before, work is going on in this area and there is a two-tier system. The Department for International Trade is also working with the Department for Education to encourage students, particularly those in Europe, to come over and continue their international student placements.

I am sure the whole House will want to join me in paying tribute to Fiona, Alexander and Philip, the three young children who died in a tragic house fire in my constituency on Friday. Our thoughts and prayers are with their family and friends.

Many students who normally work over the summer will now, through no fault of their own, be pushed into poverty. The Scottish Government have brought forward earlier access to £11 million to support students, but given the unique circumstances, does the Minister agree that flexibility in universal credit over the summer would help many young people who will otherwise be in an impossible position?

May I associate myself with the hon. Gentleman’s comments about the tragedy in his constituency?

Of course, this is a very difficult time. There is massive uncertainty in many of our sectors, and lots of those would have potentially provided short-term work opportunities to students. Obviously, the most important thing we need to do now is reopen our economy, get our economy working and provide those opportunities for young people. In the meantime, there are a number of supports and discretionary grants that are available through the FE sector or the HE sector to support students during this difficult time.

May I express my condolences, and those of my SNP colleagues, to all those affected by the terrible attacks in Reading, and to the loved ones of the three children who died in the terrible house fire at the weekend?

Scottish schools will officially break up for the summer holidays this week, and I am sure that you, Mr Speaker, will join me in thanking the school staff who have worked so hard to ensure that our children have continued to have educational input over the past few months.

In response to the pandemic, on 4 May, the Government announced a temporary cap on student numbers at English universities, to prevent institutions competing for students. Given that there was no such competition in Scotland, can the Minister explain why the same policy was then applied to Scotland, a month later than England, with no consultation with the Scottish Government and after Scottish universities had sent out entrance offers?

The Government are taking steps to ensure that universities in all four corners of the United Kingdom can continue to deliver the world-class education for which they are renowned. In May, we announced a package of measures to support our universities and safeguard the interests of students. This means that every student who wants to go to university and gets the grades can achieve their ambition. The package includes new measures to temporarily control student numbers, combined with an enhanced clearing system. That is the right thing to do to ensure a fair and orderly admissions system.

It is notable that Scottish universities found out a month later than their English counterparts—so much for consultation. As we move towards kick-starting the economy post covid, higher education is a potential growth industry. However, a former Universities Minister, Jo Johnson, has said that there must first be a recognition of the lasting reputational damage that has been done to the sector, calling on the Government to end the hostile bureaucracy facing overseas students. Therefore, in order to send a clear signal that the UK is open, what discussions has the Minister had with the Home Office on increasing the graduate work visa from two years to four years, to ensure that the UK has a globally attractive offer?

Clearly, the UK does have a globally attractive offer, given the sheer number of people who want to study here, and the many benefits of doing so. Of course, we are very proud of the sector and will continue to work with it during this difficult time. We will continue to work with the Department for International Trade and the Home Office to ensure that the path for international students wishing to study here is as clear as possible.