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Students’ Return to Universities

Volume 681: debated on Tuesday 29 September 2020

With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement regarding the return of students to universities.

Throughout this pandemic, our priority has always been to keep young people as safe as possible while they continue to learn. It is this commitment to learning and skills that has led the Prime Minister to announce today that, through our lifetime skills guarantee, we will upgrade further education colleges across the country with huge capital investment. We will expand the apprenticeship offer, we will fund valuable free technical courses for adults equivalent to A-level, and we will extend our digital boot camps. We will expand and transform the funding system so that it is as easy for a student to get a loan for a higher technical course as for a university degree. The Government will give everyone a flexible, lifelong loan entitlement to four years of post-18 education, so that adults will able to retrain with high-level technical courses instead of being trapped in unemployment.

At the beginning of September, we saw the successful reopening of our schools and colleges. Universities have been working just as hard to make campuses as safe as possible, including through enhanced cleaning measures, social distancing on campuses and changes to timetables to stagger and manage attendance on site. We have now seen the new intake of first-year students who are beginning a new chapter in their lives at university, together with those who are returning to carry on their studies. I know that this will not be the start that any of them would have wanted or expected, and I would just like to say that I am pleased to see that universities and students have followed the guidance in a responsible way, putting themselves, their friends and the local community in a safe place and out of harm’s way.

Students, as well as the wider community, accept that when we are living in a global pandemic we have to operate in a society with restrictions, but I do not believe we should look to inflict stricter measures on students or expect higher standards of behaviour from them than we would from any other section of society; there must be a parity. The decision to keep universities open and all our students learning has been a result of an enormous team effort throughout the university and higher education sector. We have drawn on the expertise of the HE taskforce that we set up, and we have been providing robust public health advice and regular updates to the sector to help it to plan carefully to keep students and staff as safe as possible. As with all our education settings, we will continue monitoring the situation closely and will follow the latest scientific advice, adapting policies as the situation changes

I know there has been some anxiety about the impact safety measures will have on the Christmas holidays. Students are important members of the communities they choose to study in. We expect them to follow the same guidance as those local communities. We will work with universities to make sure that all students are supported to return home safely and spend Christmas with their loved ones if they choose to do so. It is essential that we put in place measures to ensure that that can happen, while minimising the risk of transmission. Where there are specific circumstances that warrant it, there may be a requirement for some students to self-isolate at the end of term, and we will be working with the sector to ensure that will be possible, including by ending in-person learning early if that is deemed to be necessary. My Department will publish this guidance shortly, so that every student will be able to spend Christmas with their family.

Where students choose to stay in their university accommodation over Christmas, universities should continue making sure that they are safe and well looked after. Of course, it is inevitable there will be cases of covid occurring in universities, just as there are in our wider communities and the constituencies we represent, but we believe that universities are very well prepared to handle any outbreaks as they arise, and we have been working with the sector and Public Health England to make sure that they have every support and assistance they need should this happen. I have been impressed by the steps that our universities have been taking, working hand in glove with local authorities and local public health teams to safeguard students and staff. All our universities have local outbreak plans, and all those have been discussed with local directors of public health.

It is essential that we continue to allow our students to have face-to-face teaching wherever possible, as part of a blended learning approach. I have heard the Opposition call for all learning to move online. Although online learning is a highly effective part of the learning experience, many courses, including medicine and dentistry, as well as the creative arts, require a face-to-face element. That is why our guidance, published on 11 September, set out a tiered approach in higher education.[Official Report, 30 September 2020, Vol. 681, c. 6MC.] Tiers enable a balance of face-to-face and online learning within the context of the covid risk, and will operate alongside local restrictions that are placed on the wider community in the area that the university is in.

I would now like to mention the latest position regarding testing for students. We have been working with the Department of Health and Social Care to make sure that the testing capacity is sufficient and appropriate for universities, and I am sure the House will be aware that the Department has now launched the NHS covid-19 app. The Department continues to make more testing available, and the vast majority of people can get a test locally. The Department is also increasing the number of local testing sites and laboratories, adding new Lighthouse laboratories in Newport and Charnwood to the national lab network, as well as additional walk-in centres being planned. While we know that testing capacity is the highest it has ever been, we are still seeing a significant demand for tests. It is vital that staff and students at universities, like any other member of society, get a test only if they develop coronavirus symptoms or if advised to do so by a clinician or a public health official.

I am aware that going to university can be a stressful time for some students, many of whom will be living away from their family and friends for the first time in their lives. This year will undoubtedly see added pressures because of disruption and uncertainty caused by the global pandemic, and we must be mindful of how that will affect the mental health and wellbeing of students. Many universities have bolstered existing mental health services and offer alternatives to face-to-face consultations. Once again, I would like to thank staff at universities and colleges who have responded so quickly and creatively to the need to transform those essential services.

We have asked universities to provide additional help and practical support to students as well, and I am pleased to say that universities are making sure students who are isolating are properly cared for and can access food and medical and cleaning supplies if needed. Student accommodation and support services will be a vital resource if any student has to isolate, and for students generally during the whole period of the pandemic. As well as providing support for those in halls of residence, universities will make sure that students who live in houses in multiple occupation away from campus will still have access to advice and support if they need it. Universities are also able to call on £256 million provided by the Government as hardship funding for students who have to isolate.

The Government have taken a conscious decision to prioritise education. We know how fundamental a good education is to opportunity, to aspiration and to social mobility. That is why we opened schools, and why over 99.8% of schools are now open, delivering education to our children. Delivering education and the opportunity to go to university are equally important for those youngsters who have left college or school. We will never be in a position where we can eliminate all risk, but we will not condemn a generation of young people by asking them to put their lives on hold for months or years ahead. We believe that universities are very well prepared to handle any outbreaks as they arise. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for advance sight of it. I am glad that, after a decade of slashing funding for further education, the Conservatives have recognised that this is an important sector for life chances and for our economy. I would like to work constructively with the Government to get this right, but their continued reliance on loans to fund education, and the fact that the funding will not come on stream for many more months as we head for an unemployment crisis, are deeply concerning.

The situation as students return to university is desperately worrying. Across the country, many find themselves in isolated and cramped accommodation, parents are worried about their well-being and safety, and university staff who have worked so hard over the summer to prepare are anxious and angry that the Government did not keep their part of the bargain. They have all been let down by the Government, just as they let down many of the same students with their handling of exam results last month.

What students, staff and their families need now is reassurance. Nineteen days ago—the last time the Secretary of State commented on the situation at universities—he stressed the importance of delivering clear messages to students, and I hope he will use the opportunity of answering my questions today to do that.

Everybody knew that the return of students to universities would present significant challenges—SAGE warned of the impact weeks ago. What planning was put in place over the summer to ensure students would be able to return safely? Universities have stressed the importance of being able to work closely with local public health teams, so why did it take the Secretary of State and the Health Secretary until last Wednesday to write to local directors of public health about the return of university students?

What is the Secretary of State’s message to those students who have not yet moved to campus? They need clarity, should they do so. What urgent steps is he taking to ensure that every student can get the best possible education, whether at home or on campus? How many students are currently unable to learn remotely because of a lack of digital access or devices, and what is he doing to address that? What extra support will be given to students with special educational needs and disabilities? He is right that some courses require face-to-face teaching, but has he considered supporting universities to move all teaching online, where this is possible, at least for this first term?

For weeks now, Labour has warned the Government that they must get a grip on testing and tracing if we are to reduce the spread of the virus, and the failure to do so lies at the root of this situation. Sorting it must be the Government’s top priority. In his statement, the Secretary of State said that only those with symptoms should try to get a test. That will leave many without symptoms in self-isolation in difficult circumstances. Can he tell us how many students, staff and members of the community around universities have symptoms but are waiting for a test? What is the local testing capacity in each community with a university, and is he confident that it will be sufficient if there is a spike in cases? Some universities have taken the lead where the Government have failed, and have begun to develop their own testing capacity. What support is the Secretary of State offering those institutions and others that wish to do this?

We cannot forget that at the heart of this crisis are thousands of young people—many away from home for the first time, and many now isolated with a group of people who are practically strangers. We can only imagine how hard it is for them. The Secretary of State said he has asked universities to provide additional help, but beyond asking, what will his Department do to help them? I am glad he has listened to Labour and finally given a straight answer on reuniting students and their families over Christmas, but why did it take several days and repeated contradictions from his ministerial colleagues?

The crisis now threatening our universities was predictable, and it was predicted. Today, the Secretary of State failed to outline a plan to get testing fit for purpose, failed to commit himself to ensuring that every student who needs access to remote learning will get it, and had no plan to ensure the future of our universities. If he does not get a grip, the situation we have seen in recent days could repeat itself across the country. Students will be unable to continue their studies, families will be concerned for their wellbeing and universities will face serious financial difficulties—and the Secretary of State will once again have let young people down as a result of his incompetence.

I thank the hon. Lady for her questions. I am glad she welcomes the announcements on further education. The changes we want to drive in further education are absolutely vital to ensure that our country is in the right place to seize new opportunities now that we have exited the European Union and to make sure our youngsters, and people of all ages, have the skills they need to drive productivity in this country and ensure that they get the very most out of their lives.

The hon. Lady mentioned the advice from SAGE. Understandably, we wanted to update the advice we had issued on 2 July on the return of universities and higher education institutions following the conclusions of SAGE, which we did. That took into account the issues that SAGE had raised and some of the suggestions that it had made. SAGE also warned about the impact of youngsters not going to university and of having the opportunity to return taken away from them. That was recognised across all four nations of the United Kingdom—how important it is for youngsters to be able to go to study at university.

The hon. Lady raises an important point about digital access. I am sorry that she missed the announcement that we have made £100 million available for universities to use to ensure that youngsters have digital access, including students from the most deprived backgrounds, who would perhaps not be in a position to access courses. It is vital that if we are in a situation where people will have blended learning, all students are able to access it. We are taking seriously some of the challenges that all students and universities will face, which is why we have made £256 million available to make sure that where students are facing real hardship, universities can access funding to help them.

I thank the Minister for Universities, my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan), who has been in regular touch with universities over the last few days. A small number of universities have seen a number of coronavirus cases—it is not uncommon in communities across the country. She has been in touch with them to make sure that they know we are there to support them and give them any help that is required. We must not forget, however, that hundreds of thousands of students—almost a million—have safely returned to university over the last few weeks. They will start their studies and benefit from a brilliant, world-class university education.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that a proportionate response means that students have a right to their course and to face-to-face education? All of us, including older people such as myself, must take personal responsibility. We cannot destroy the life chances of the young. If someone is doing a history degree, they cannot be condemned to permanent online teaching. They might as well sit at home; why have they paid all that money? Will he confirm that, of course, students must self-isolate if they get ill, but we cannot have whole halls of residence being locked down? That is not the sort of university that we all want—a place of light and learning, without enforced lockdowns.

We expect students to follow the same rules as we ask everyone in society to follow. Those who have tested positive for covid or have been in close contact with someone who has would understandably be asked to self-isolate. Universities are working closely with local public health teams to ensure that that happens. We always want to ensure that there is a sensible and proportionate response to ensure that students are able to go about their business and continue their learning online and, importantly, face to face.

I start by declaring an interest: my son is currently at university having to deal with online lessons and my husband teaches in a university.

Unfortunately, covid is only one of the challenges facing universities, with a hard Brexit fast approaching. I join the Secretary of State in praising the steps that universities have put in place to keep staff and students safe through blended and online lessons and mental health support. I hope he will join me in recognising the support that has been given by individual universities such as Glasgow, which will refund one month’s rent for any student having to self-isolate in halls, and Dundee University, which is offering free accommodation to international students who have to quarantine. Students and young people should not be blamed for the rise in cases. The vast majority are complying entirely with the guidance.

While Scottish students attend university in Scotland for free and therefore are not financially impacted by fees, students in England will pay over £9,000 for a mostly online education. This is clearly the time to reflect on the fee-paying structure of higher education and consider following Scotland’s example of free higher education for all. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with Cabinet colleagues on reducing fees and increasing Government funding to universities? We know that there have been issues in accessing tests in England, and that can be more acute for students, who may not have the ability to travel to testing centres. What steps is he taking to set up on-campus tests for students?

Finally, in the Science and Technology Committee earlier this month, the principal of Glasgow University, Professor Sir Anton Muscatelli, described the R&D road map published by the Government in July as a “very high-level document” that

“needs to be turned into a definitive plan very quickly”,

with clarity given on the Government’s exact plans for investment. Could the Secretary of State set out when details of the road map will be released?

I thank the hon. Lady for her many comments. I know that both the University of Glasgow and Glasgow Caledonian, which neighbour her constituency, have been doing an awful lot of work in welcoming students from all four parts of the United Kingdom. That demonstrates how important the United Kingdom is to the success of all universities, in terms of collaboration.

I thank the hon. Lady for putting forward policy suggestions for future Conservative party manifestos. We want to ensure that universities are properly funded, so that they are able to have world-class facilities that can beat those of other universities anywhere in the world. Universities in Scotland also benefit from the UK finance system, as do Scottish students. In terms of test and trace, we continue to work—

Order. It might be helpful to remind the Secretary of State that answers and questions are meant to come through me. Addressing the SNP Chief Whip is not quite what we need. Please remember to speak through the Chair.

I apologise, Mr Speaker. I spent so long with the SNP Chief Whip when we were Chief Whips together that I naturally gravitate to him and have a lovely conversation with him. Old habits die hard, but I will ignore the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady).

In our work with universities, we recognise that we are dealing with a fluid situation. We are working with the test and trace system to ensure that there is availability for all students to access testing at universities, close to their residence.

I know that locally, Keele University and Staffordshire University have been working extremely hard during the pandemic to support students. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, despite the challenges we face, everything possible must be done to ensure that students get as enriching an experience as possible this year?

I pay tribute to those two great universities from Staffordshire, the University of Staffordshire and the University of Keele, for all they have done to give a warm welcome to all students and ensure that they can progress their life chances and have the opportunity to learn. We want all youngsters in all four nations of the United Kingdom to have that opportunity.

What we have seen this week in two halls of residence in my constituency sums up everything that the Government are getting wrong in handling this crisis: no planning over the summer and no foresight, even though it was obvious that halls of residence would be the main area of risk; confused messages that even the Secretary of State’s own Ministers cannot keep track of, let alone 18-year-olds arriving in our city from different parts of the country; and a woeful lack of quick testing, which could have helped us to avoid this situation. When will his Government get a grip, especially on the testing regime, so that others do not have to face restrictions because he has lost control?

The hon. Lady is probably aware that we are doing more tests a day than ever before: 225,000 tests every single day. We are increasing the testing capacity to 500,000 by the end of next month. We recognise that this has to be targeted in areas of high need, such as the areas the hon. Lady has highlighted, but we will be asking—[Interruption.] If the hon. Lady is going to ask questions, she may want to have the opportunity to hear the answers.

We are asking students, where they get tested and there is a positive test, to self-isolate and, as in the wider community, that the immediate contacts also self-isolate. However, we do recognise how important it is for universities to be able to provide support for those youngsters—I touched on this in my statement—with food and cleaning products, and other support that may be available. My hon. Friend the Universities Minister spoke to the vice-chancellor of Manchester Metropolitan just yesterday, making clear our offer of support—we are there, standing behind universities and helping them to support their students—which is so critical. I know that is a view that the hon. Lady and I share.

One of the things that has worried a lot of university students is the idea that, if they either test positive or are a contact of someone who tests positive, they might have to self-isolate, even over Christmas, in their university accommodation, and I am glad the Secretary of State has confirmed that we will treat university students like everyone else. The regulations yesterday confirm that people can self-isolate not just at their own home, but at the home of a friend or family member, so someone could return to a family home if that was appropriate. To reassure university students, can he confirm that they will be able to do that and will not be trapped in their university accommodation for the period of self-isolation?

We are very conscious that a lot of students—most students—will not want to be in university accommodation over the Christmas period. We will be setting out quite clearly how that will be avoided, so any students who do not want to be in that position will be able to be at home with their loved ones. We will make sure that all students who want to return home are able to do so.

There are lots of very worrying reports that young people are scared, confused, isolated and vulnerable to mental ill health, so could the Secretary of State please confirm on what date specifically he knew that some universities were planning to put groups of students in quarantine and on what date specifically he first discussed asking them to put measures in place so that every student had access to mental health support?

The work on mental health support started right at the start of this covid crisis. We made sure that we put in place measures to support students and to put the whole education community at the heart of what we do, recognising the importance of dealing with mental health issues. If we look back at the guidance issued on 2 July and the guidance issued on 11 September, we can see that there was always a recognition that people who tested positive for covid would need to self-isolate. Those people who have been in close contact with those who test positive—this is not dissimilar to what we would see in workplaces and other educational settings—would also have to isolate as a result.

Following on from that, for many young people, even in a normal year, this is a difficult time of transition—moving to independent study and living, managing finances, meeting new people, and all in unfamiliar surroundings—and a lot of great work is done by universities and the likes of Student Minds, for example. Could my right hon. Friend say a little bit more about the support that is available, and about how it is being stepped up in universities and can be stepped up to fully support our young people?

An amazing amount of work is done by every single university, but there has also been a recognition by the Office for Students that there may be gaps. That is why the Office for Students has stepped in to ensure that where students find that there is not that type of provision, something is provided for them, so that no student is in a position of not being supported. It is incredibly important that all students understand that support is available to enable them to enjoy their time at university and succeed in their studies.

The climate of fear deliberately created by Ministers and their advisers has done untold damage to individuals and to the economy as a whole, and has now hit students and universities, with lock-ups of students and students being denied face-to-face education and unable to engage in the activities we normally associate with student life. Yet they are expected to pay the full price for this substandard opportunity in higher education. Does the Secretary of State think it is fair that universities still hold on to the money paid by students when they are not offering the student experience that they promised? Will he clarify whether the direction that students can go home at Christmas was a result of Government guidance or a decision by universities themselves?

As the right hon. Gentleman will know, it was guidance issued by Government and a decision of Government, because obviously any actions that are taken have to be taken in the context of dealing with covid right across the United Kingdom. I am sure that he will have taken the time to read the guidance that we issued on 11 September and studied it in detail. He will have seen the four tiers that we set out to ensure that students benefit from the maximum amount of learning face to face with their lecturers so that every student gets the very best experience that can be made available to them in all universities in England.

It is right that we are keeping universities such as the University of Bolton open. What assurances can my right hon. Friend give that efforts are being made, first, to stymie perpetually enforced self-isolation within the student community, and secondly, to ward off financial ruin caused by unsubstantiated scaremongering on things such as closing down Christmas for students?

I pay tribute to the University of Bolton for all the work that it has been doing in order to be able to welcome back its many thousands of students. It plays an important role in providing education not just for students who have travelled internationally and across the country, but locally for many young people. We will continue to work with the University of Bolton to ensure that people understand how the rules are applied. We need to make sure that people understand who needs to isolate and how long they should be isolating for, but equally, they need to understand that many young people can go about their normal business while observing the restrictions and courtesies that we ask all universities and all people within society to observe.

What concrete action did the Secretary of State take over the summer to ensure that all students and staff requiring a covid test will be able to have one?

As I mentioned, we continue to work with the Department of Health and Social Care and with Test and Trace to expand the footprint of testing facilities, which are to be increased to 500. We are making sure that all universities are within walking distance of a testing centre. Many universities will be making some of their facilities available so that testing centres can be placed there. We have also had assurances from the Department of Health and Social Care in terms of mobile testing facilities that will be made available if there are any local outbreaks and that is required.

Surely the right approach is that, despite the virus, we all have to get on with our lives as best we can, and that includes students. Does my right hon. Friend agree that starting the academic year on time was exactly the right decision, and that social distancing and isolation rules that apply to the rest of us need to apply to adult students, no more, no less?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There should be the same set of rules across the board. There is a real cost to not opening up our universities, as there is a cost to not opening up our schools. The cost is not in money: it is in the missed opportunities for those youngsters who want to study to be a doctor, a dentist, a nurse or a teacher, or to train to become an engineer. Denying them the chance to return, to learn and to have the opportunities that so many in this House have had would do them an injustice. That is why it has been right to make sure that young people are able to go back to university and benefit from what so many Members in this House have also benefited from.

First-year students have already had to endure the Government’s chaotic handling of A-level results and now the predictable campus outbreaks, but without sufficient testing or support in place, and the very distressing threat to them and their worried parents that they might not be able to return for Christmas. Will the Secretary of State clarify the point in his statement where he talks about ending learning early? Is he proposing now that all students should have to self-isolate at the end of term, so that they can return safely for Christmas? If so, why not, instead, pursue mass testing with universities so that those students can safely go about their lives and return safely home?

The right hon. Lady obviously listened to only a part of the statement. I said that all youngsters who want to be able to return home will be able to do so. We will look at where there are specific cases. She will be fully aware that many universities break up at different times for Christmas, but, where there are specific cases and specific local circumstances, we will be working with the university sector to look at shifting to online learning solely to be able to ensure that all students have the benefit of being able to return home to be with their families for Christmas. We envisage that that will cover only a very small number of universities.

I am glad the Secretary of State has confirmed that face-to-face learning will continue where possible, but in some cases students will be paying full fees for what are now only online courses. The financial burden must be shared with universities, so can he ask the Office for Students to confirm, and strongly advise, that university bonuses should not be paid unless fees are lowered?

My hon. Friend raises an incredibly important point. We have had an issue of excessive vice-chancellor pay and bonuses for quite a long time. I will be asking the Office for Students to look at this and give very strong and clear steers to ensure that no bonuses are going out as a result of this crisis.

I declare an interest: my son has started university in the past week or so. He has not had to self-isolate yet, but a lot of his friends have, and I will tell the Secretary of State what they are saying. They are saying that this is exactly the same as the A-level debacle. It was completely predictable and completely avoidable. They have lost confidence in the Secretary of State’s ability to deliver a safe education. What can he say to them to ensure that, moving forward, they can have confidence that this pattern will not be repeated for the next six months?

I very much hope that the hon. Member’s son is enjoying his time at university and the opportunities that it will open up. We have always been clear that, if youngsters contract covid, they will have to self-isolate. We have also been clear that, where students have been in close contact with people who have covid, they will also have to self-isolate. Those are the rules that we expect everyone right across the country to abide by, so it is right that we also expect that of students. What the hon. Member would see, if he had taken the time to read the guidance that we issued on both 2 July and 11 September and the additional work and support made available to universities, is that we recognised that there were going to be challenges as a result of this. That is why we have worked with the university sector and asked it to reduce the risk as much as possible, so that young people are able to have the benefits of university and their learning is not impacted by covid—or the impact is minimised.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. Education is essential to opportunity and social mobility. The role of further education colleges is absolutely vital: I am sure he will endorse that. Does he agree that it is right to prioritise education by keeping schools, colleges and universities open, and that we cannot ask young people to put their lives on hold for months?

As someone who has worked in the FE sector and feels so passionately about it and about the opportunities that not just further education but higher education and all schools provide for all our youngsters, my right hon. Friend is absolutely right to advocate the importance of opening not just our universities but our schools and colleges at the earliest opportunity. Let us not forget that when we suggested opening schools on 1 June, the Labour party opposed that. When we issued guidance on 2 July to see the full opening of all schools in September, the Labour party opposed that. The Labour party does not come forward with positive suggestions; it just tries to politicise a global pandemic— in the words of the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green).

The Secretary of State presided over the GCSE and A-level fiasco over the summer. That was a dog’s breakfast, and now he is not able to guarantee students testing when they need it. The World Health Organisation has called for testing since March, yet this Government have shown nothing but incompetence. Can the Secretary of State give a straight answer and guarantee that every student who needs a test will get it, instead of this fiasco that he presided over right through the summer? He has failed to prepare and plan. He needs to do his job.

The hon. Lady is probably aware that in order to be able to access testing, someone has to be symptomatic. That is where the testing is most likely to produce the most accurate results. Those guidelines are produced by the Department of Health and Social Care, and I would be very happy for my office to forward them so she can better understand them.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement, and also the Prime Minister’s statement today. Training and retraining have never been more important than in our now rapidly changing economy. But with parents worried about the cost of university accommodation—they often act as guarantors—and students worried about the heavy debt they will have to repay after university, as well as the paucity or even trauma of their university experience due to lockdown, will my right hon. Friend champion two-year degree courses, such as those offered by our own excellent Buckingham University, which ensure academic excellence and achievement at a much lower cost to students and families?

The pioneering work that has been undertaken by the University of Buckingham and its vice-chancellor, the brilliant Sir Anthony Seldon, who has done so much for education in this country, is something to behold and something that I would like to see more universities copy. We need to ensure that young people understand that there is not just one option available to them at the age of 18, and that going to university is not the only way to succeed. There are so many opportunities, including pursuing an apprenticeship or even a degree apprenticeship, or going on to one of our brilliant further education colleges. Expanding the breadth of that choice is one of the key missions of this party. We recognise that that is how we will level up opportunity for all youngsters in this country.

In April, a report commissioned by the University and College Union on the impact of the covid pandemic found that universities were facing a funding black hole of £2.5 billion in 2020-21, and students still graduate with average debt in excess of £50,000. Calls for an urgent sector-wide funding guarantee have fallen on deaf ears, and we now face the covid crisis in the university sector, putting lives at risk. This was avoidable. Will the Secretary of State now listen and act on the advice of experts by making online learning accessible to all, enabling students to go home without fear of financial penalty, and providing the sector and students with proper funding?

The hon. Lady is maybe not aware that we have taken a number of actions to support the sector, including changes and improvements in research funding, making sure that we continue to protect the vital scientific research base in which we are truly a world leader; the actions that we took before the summer to bring stability to the sector; and working with Universities UK to ensure that the profiling of money to universities works best for them and gives them stability to be able to provide for young people, not just in England, but hopefully also with benefits in Wales.

I thank the Secretary of State and the Minister for Universities, my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan), for their work on getting students back to university as soon as possible. It is very important that students are able to continue their studies with as little disruption as possible, and the university is the largest employer in Loughborough. I would therefore welcome the Ministers’ comments on the steps being taken to ensure that students can now safely remain on campus for the duration of their courses.

I know the wonderful work that the University of Loughborough has been undertaking, and the fact that it is in The Times guide to the top 10 universities in the United Kingdom is testament to the amazing work that it is undertaking. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that students want to go to university to get the most out of the experience at university, and that is why the unprecedented measures that our universities have taken to create a safe and secure environment, so that students can benefit from being at university all the way through the year, are so important. We will continue to work with universities such as Loughborough to provide that to all students.

The Secretary of State said in his statement that face-to-face teaching should continue wherever possible within the context of covid risk and local restrictions. Should the local context or restrictions require a university to move teaching online completely, however, will the Government ensure that neither the university nor its students will be punished financially for doing the right thing?

We continue to work with the sector to ensure that there is the very best quality of teaching. If youngsters have an issue with the quality of teaching, the Office for Students has made it absolutely clear that it will investigate and take action where it is required against universities that are not delivering what is in their contract with the students.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. Our fiercely independent universities are rapidly adapting to this new way of operating so that thousands of young people who have been hard hit by coronavirus can get on with their lives after six months of the pandemic, and I think they deserve all our support. However, many of those students might have planned to use the summer months to earn money to support themselves through university or, indeed, might have been looking for part-time work while they were studying as a way of ensuring that they could support themselves through these important years of their lives. I am interested to hear from my right hon. Friend what additional work the universities will be doing to ensure that those students who are working hard will be able to get the support they need if they hit financial hardship.

Quite rightly, both this Government and the previous Labour Government have put a really high value on ensuring that students who started their studies were able to complete them, and we monitor closesly the ways in which universities ensure that that happens. We have worked with the Office for Students to ensure that hardship funding is available. That is part of a quarter of a billion pound package that was made available to universities so that proper assessments could be made of students if they required such support. The Student Loans Company also offers a system whereby extra maintenance support can be made available through individual assessment if a student chooses to go down that route.

While people can pin the exam results fiasco on the Education Secretary, they certainly cannot blame him for the shambolic privatised test and trace system, which is being personally led by the Prime Minister, his chief adviser and the Health Secretary, and which has put the lives of our young people and their families at risk. Given that many of us fear an increased university drop-out rate among students, along with increased stress and mental health issues, can the Secretary of State promise that every student will have access to tests so that they can travel home safely, especially for Christmas?

As we have made clear, we want to ensure that all students who wish to do so can return home safely for Christmas. We and the university sector are confident that the best way of keeping students and young people engaged in their studies is for them to be part of the university community; that is an important step towards ensuring that we do not see high drop-out rates. As I have said, both the hon. Gentleman’s party and my own have always put a great emphasis on the need to ensure that youngsters complete their studies, to ensure that they get something incredibly important from the investment that they make, because this will stand them in good stead to achieve the very best in life. We will continue to work with the sector to give young people the support that is required in these times that are much more challenging than any of us thought we would ever have to face.

We are rightly proud that the UK attracts so many international students who come to our country every year to study. Will my right hon. Friend tell me what steps his Department is taking to support those students during these unprecedented times?

We have been working closely with the whole university sector to reach out to nations right across the world to make them understand not only that we have the best universities in the world and so many of the best research and teaching universities, but that we offer a brilliant lived experience of being here in the United Kingdom and the opportunity of post-study visas, which are incredibly important. We have also been working with the Home Office to ensure that visa applications are done well and quickly, and ensuring that we have a campaign reaching out to those nations so that youngsters there understand that this is a great country to study in.

As the Secretary of State said, most university courses in this academic year will now involve a blend of online and face-to-face teaching, but it is clear that those proportions might change in response to circumstances. An informal survey conducted by Disabled Students UK shows that changing learning set-ups can cause anxiety and fatigue. Many disabled students also experience issues with pre-existing conditions flaring up when they are adjusting to a new study environment, and excessive screen time can be problematic for people with some conditions. Disabled students and those with chronic conditions might also be more fearful of attending in-person classes. Will the Secretary of State assure the House that every student has the equipment and support they need to learn remotely, and that the needs of disabled students are not an afterthought?

The hon. Lady rightly raises an important point, and under equalities legislation universities have a duty to ensure that there is proper and fair provision for all students. That is what we would expect from all universities. I wonder whether she would be kind enough to share with me the details of the survey; I know that my hon. Friend the Minister for Universities would very much like to follow this up in a meeting with her to discuss it in more detail. As we have mentioned in terms of the availability of devices and the £100 million fund, I certainly hope that youngsters who are suffering with a disability would be a top priority for any university, but I look forward to my hon. Friend taking this further in discussions with the hon. Lady and hopefully offering her full and total reassurance on that matter.

Much has been made of the short-term impact on students and on universities, but there is a long-term impact too, and we have known for a while that for increasing numbers of university students the graduate outcomes are not great. This health crisis is only going to exacerbate that problem, so will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity to examine the choices that we are offering to young people as they leave school and what the proper role for universities in our education system might be?

My hon. Friend knows very well that, while I am a passionate advocate for universities, I cannot help feeling that we must never ignore the great opportunities that are offered through our further education colleges and through apprenticeship routes. For far too long, this area has been ignored. We need to see changes, we need to see improvement and we have to make sure young people realise that sometimes these opportunities are as good as, and in some cases much better than, going to university. That is what we are looking at delivering and what we are going to deliver as part of this Government’s agenda.

The blame for the coronavirus outbreak on campuses lies squarely with the Government’s decision to ignore their own evidence warning that face-to-face teaching and halls of residence were areas of risk. Independent SAGE has called for all teaching to be moved online, as has the University and College Union, the staff union. By choosing not to do that, are the Government not putting student and staff safety at risk simply to uphold a broken university model, as they fear that online teaching would lead to demands for fee or rent refunds?

I am always grateful to get a direct question from the UCU, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that that is not the case.

Schools, further education colleges and universities in and around my constituency are doing all they can to get great, positive educational outcomes for the young people they are looking after in these difficult times. Will the Secretary of State confirm that he will be devoting 100% of his efforts to the education of Britain’s children and young people, rather than seeing the global coronavirus pandemic as a “good crisis” and an opportunity to score political points, which is, sadly, the stated position of the Opposition Front Bench?

I certainly know that my hon. Friend is putting 100% into representing his constituents in North West Durham and making sure their voice is heard in this Chamber, including on driving changes and improvement to Derwentside College to make sure that youngsters get the very best opportunity, as, far too often, it had been neglected in the past. He is absolutely right to say that Government Members are 100% committed to making sure young people get the very best in education, as opposed to constantly taking the line of trade unions and trying to find excuses not to do things.

I thank the Secretary of State for his replies thus far. Will he outline what has been done in tandem with hospitals to ensure that fourth-year medical students can get hands-on practice, bearing in mind that many are reporting that they are being excluded from normal mentoring and in-room observation as a result of social distancing protocol? How will he ensure that the doctors of the future have the complete, rounded education that is vital to their ability to practise medicine?

This is incredibly vital, for all four nations of the UK. We have been doing a lot of work with the Department of Health and Social Care to make sure that that is made available to all medical students in England. I will take up this issue again with the Health Secretary, as well as with the devolved Health Minister in Northern Ireland, to ensure that that is being delivered. If we want to continue to ensure that we have our world-class NHS, we have to ensure that that pipeline of brilliant doctors, nurses and clinicians continues to be provided for it through our universities.

I am delighted to have Imperial College London partly in my constituency. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that he will give all the support necessary to our world-class educational establishments and that we will do everything to ensure that our students get as normal an education as possible in these difficult circumstances?

Imperial College is one of the great shining lights of our university sector, known around the world for its excellence. My hon. Friend the Minister for Universities visited Imperial College just the other week, seeing at first hand not only some of the measures it was putting in place to ensure that students could return safely, but some of the world-leading work that gives it the reputation it rightfully has. It is important that we continue to work with the sector to do everything possible to ensure not only that students have the quality of experience, but, most important, that they can continue to benefit from the brilliant learning and research that is at the very heart of great universities such as Imperial.

It was the Health Secretary’s refusal last week to rule out students not being able to return home for Christmas that caused a great deal of distress to students and indeed to parents, so the Education Secretary’s clear statement today that students will be able to go home will be welcome. However, may I bring him back to the question put to him by the right hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), which I do not think he quite answered? Under the current rules, can students go home to self-isolate?

We will be setting out clear guidance in terms of students and making sure that that fits within the broader guidance right across the country that is available for the wider population as well.

As my right hon. Friend knows, education is fundamental to improving opportunities and driving social mobility. It is right that he has done all that he can to reopen education. However, many parents in Darlington are concerned that their children will not be able to return home for Christmas. Although we welcome his announcement today, may I urge him to do all he can to ensure that the fear of missing out on Christmas does not jeopardise our students’ first term?

We all know the importance that we all place on being with our families at Christmas, and it is vital that we set out clearly that we are going to ensure that all students can do so this Christmas. We have to set that in the context of what is happening nationally, and we will work with the Department of Health and the university sector to ensure that all those youngsters who are currently studying and want to return to their loved ones can do so—not just in Darlington, but right across the country.

The Secretary of State says that his Government prioritise education and that he stands behind universities, but he knows that the only financial support the sector has received is to address the shortfall in scientific research funding, which is critical but does not have an impact on the learning experience. Will he specify the support that Newcastle University in my constituency will receive to ensure that 30,000 students receive a supportive, safe educational experience in a city with the second highest coronavirus infection rate in the country?

I spelt out in the statement the £256 million that was made available for universities to support students to continue their studies. We also reprofiled student loans to provide support and have continuously worked with the sector. We have set up a restructuring regime for universities that are facing financial hardship and difficulty, so that they can work with us and we can support them.

Some 2,500 new and returning students arrived at the Keele campus in my constituency in the past week, all accommodated in small and tightly-defined households. I am pleased to say that the vice-chancellor reports no significant issues so far. Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming these students to Newcastle-under-Lyme—to Staffordshire? Will he also welcome the sensible approach of Keele University and its blended approach to learning, including through face-to-face teaching, and will he set out what measures his Department has taken to alleviate any concerns that staff and students have, given the recent rise in covid cases?

We all recognise that we are operating in unique circumstances, in which we are seeing a rise in the number of coronavirus cases. The work of Keele University—setting out clear policies to welcome students back safely, and into a warm and friendly environment—is critical. Like me, my hon. Friend wants to ensure that universities can benefit from the brilliant experience of studying at Keele and to continue to make Keele one of the great universities to study at.

Students are asking why they have been sent to university halls only to be locked in their rooms and—rightly—receive online teaching. The University and College Union and the National Union of Students warned what would happen, but the Government ignored them. One answer—maybe a cynical one—is that the marketised higher education system needed students to return. It needed their tuition fees and their rents, and that is why student welfare has been sacrificed. Is the cynic right, or is this straightforward Government incompetence?

I know that the hon. Lady feels passionately about this issue, but we want youngsters to be able to go back to university and benefit from education and learning. As she is aware, it is not just students and those who have been in contact with them who have to get tests and who may have to self-isolate if they are displaying symptoms; it is the whole of society. It is so important that we deal with this as a nation. We cannot have one rule for students and another rule for the rest of the population. This is the right approach, ensuring that we continue to do everything we can to control the virus.

I welcome what my right hon. Friend said about supporting the mental health of students at this time. May I encourage him to ensure support for the employability skills of students, which could easily be neglected with online sessions? Even if it is only online, let us keep them on track for the lives they want after university.

A key metric we always look at is what universities are doing to ensure that students do not just learn, but can benefit from that learning and study and bring it into the world of work. That should not be neglected at this time, but rather there should be a greater emphasis on it. What is the point, if people go to university and are not given the tools to enter employment and fulfil their dreams and ambitions through the work they get on the back of degrees they have achieved?

Students from my constituency and elsewhere who are away at university for the first time are being put in the impossible situation of facing huge restrictions on their education and social life, while still being expected to pay full fees and rent. That is both grossly unjust and unfair. Will the Secretary of State tell me what plans the Government have to address that issue?

As I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware, anyone who has not been receiving what they should have been receiving, in terms of education and support from a university, can, through the Office for Students, make a complaint. If they are not getting the support and the study they should be entitled to as part of their contract, they are entitled to be reimbursed.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. Staffordshire University and Keele University are important local employers for the areas of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove, Talke, Newcastle-under-Lyme and across north Staffordshire, as well as a vital lifeline for the local economy. Does my right hon. Friend agree that bringing students back to university for face-to-face learning is also important, so that local economies can thrive?

We all recognise the important role that universities play, in terms of not just direct employment but the innovation they bring to communities and the research they do, which often supports local business. They also train people in skills to enter the workforce not here in London, but in Stoke, Talke, Kidsgrove and many other areas across north Staffordshire. They are an important local employer, and an important part of economic regeneration for many areas up and down the country.

Young people have borne a heavy burden throughout the pandemic: financially, emotionally, through the loss of education, and now with a disruptive return to university. Will the Secretary of State use his position to advocate that young people should not also bear the burden of paying for this crisis through fees and accommodation costs for the rest of their lives?

I reassure the hon. Lady that this Government are not going to treat students like the SNP Government did in Scotland, as a different set of citizens and by putting a different set of restrictions on them from those on the wider community. We recognise that we should treat people fairly and equally, so we will not make the SNP’s mistakes.

Mr Speaker, may I start by thanking you for getting all the way through this call list to me, at the bottom of the class?

Will the Secretary of State inject some positivity into the Chamber? Going to university is the most amazing opportunity. Yes, it will be different this year, but our young people are durable and flexible, and they will take the opportunity that is afforded to them in the way that generations before them have. Will he conclude by sending out a message that these young people will power our future generations and economy through these very difficult times?

Mr Speaker, I think you will agree with me that my hon. Friend deserves a first-class degree for that question. He is absolutely right to say that university students will face a different set of circumstances, but going to university opens up so many doors and opportunities, in terms of not just study and what they will learn, but the opportunities and friendships they will forge over their period of study.

We are not quite finished yet: we have the Chair of the Education Committee to come, Robert Halfon.

Thank you, Mr Speaker —much appreciated.

I strongly welcome today’s remarkable announcement on skills, which we should all celebrate, and I thank my right hon. Friend, and the Universities Minister, for the work that they are doing on universities. There are 3,000 students, roughly, in lockdown at the moment. All I ask of my right hon. Friend is that if that number grows dramatically—to 10,000, 15,000, or 20,000—he will review the current policy, which he set out today.

May I also ask my right hon. Friend specifically about a long-term issue that has been exposed by the coronavirus? Of state school pupils, 45% go on to higher education; of pupils on free school meals, it is 26%; and of white working-class boys on free school meals, it is just 13%. What are my right hon Friend, and the Universities Minister, doing to reverse that and to ensure that more white working-class boys and girls go to university?

Few people in the House can match my right hon. Friend as such a staunch and consistent advocate for high-quality further and technical education, whether through our further education colleges, apprenticeships or independent learning providers. He truly is an inspiration not just to me but to so many others to ensure that we provide that for young people in the future.

My right hon. Friend rightly says that the university situation is something that we need to keep constantly under review. We will constantly work with the sector very closely to ensure that we adapt and support it if the pandemic means that we have to make changes.

The question of why not enough youngsters on free school meals or white working-class boys are going to university is a real issue. We need to see change. We need to look at different options to ensure that those youngsters realise that they can succeed as well at university as all the other youngsters who choose to go. We will ensure that we deliver it as we level up across the country over the coming years.