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University Teaching and Student Services: Covid-19

Volume 682: debated on Monday 12 October 2020

What recent steps he has taken to help ensure that universities can deliver safe (a) teaching and (b) student services during the covid-19 outbreak. (907353)

What recent steps he has taken to help ensure that universities can deliver safe (a) teaching and (b) student services during the covid-19 outbreak. (907357)

We announced a package of measures in May to support the sector. We have also issued guidance on reopening, reflecting advice from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, and we have worked with universities to ensure that they have outbreak plans that are shared with their local Public Health England teams. We will shortly provide additional guidance on winter planning and end-of-term preparations.

A constituent of mine who is also an associate lecturer at Nottingham Trent University wrote to me to say that a safe start to the new academic year would be a boost in a year that has been awful in so many ways. Why was it important to reopen universities? Does my hon. Friend agree with my constituent’s suggestion that specific testing and monitoring systems for universities might help to provide a safety net for very close-knit groups?

This Government have prioritised education. We simply cannot ask students to put their lives, or their academic journeys, on hold. To do so would mean removing opportunities, damaging social mobility and punishing young people. The education and welfare of students is at the forefront of all our decisions. That is why we have worked and continue to work with the Department of Health and Social Care to ensure that students get access to tests if symptomatic so that the trace work can kick in immediately.

Last week I spoke to several constituents who are students at university. As per the Minister’s answer, I think it is fair to say that education and welfare, in many respects, leaves a lot to be desired. Could she and the Department help me to understand why several universities are not giving face-to-face teaching at all, even in an appropriate socially distanced way; are being extremely draconian in the way that certain students are being treated in terms of their social contact, which is a critical part of being at university; and, in some cases, are even charging £18 a day for food parcels? Could the Minister put appropriate pressure on universities—not all of them but those that are not performing—to sort this out?

Universities are offering blended learning unless they have moved to a higher covid tier, in conjunction with their local Public Health England team. But let me be clear: no university should seek to profit from students self-isolating, and reported charges of £18 a day for food parcels are quite simply outrageous. Students self-isolating in catered halls should receive free food, while other students should receive food that is either free—as many universities, including Sheffield Hallam and Edge Hill, are doing—or at a price that can be afforded within a student’s budget. I have spoken to many universities on this, and I am also writing to them to make the point.