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Higher Education

Volume 803: debated on Wednesday 6 May 2020

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the announcement on 4 May of the support package for universities and students as a result of the impact of COVID-19, what steps they are taking to protect (1) the quality, and (2) the accessibility, of higher education.

The Question was considered in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.

My Lords, all registered providers must comply with the Office for Students’ conditions for quality and access. We are protecting the interests of students by stabilising the admissions system, bringing forward £2.6 billion of forecast tuition fee income to help universities’ cash flow, and providing students with more support. This includes help for universities to reprioritise spending to increase student hardship funds, to support students to continue to access their university education.

My Lords, I draw attention to my declaration of interests. Will the Minister kindly confirm that the definition of the 5% uplift on student numbers is forecast and not any historic benchmark? Will she confirm—perhaps not today, but in writing—an urgent timeline for the publication of the work of the research sustainability task force in respect of the likely catastrophic loss of income from overseas students and the urgent need to underwrite research funding, should cross-subsidy be no longer available?

My Lords, the precise figures to determine the 5% uplift on the cap will be provided at provider level, and the methodology for that will be published shortly. The task force is made up of members from the Department for Education, BEIS, the devolved Administrations and the sector, and will meet to ensure the long-term viability of the research capacity of UK universities.

My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, said, higher education is profoundly affected by loss of income from overseas students. This will compound the loss of research income from Horizon 2020 and other EU participation programmes, which have long been a critical part of our research success and indeed our cultural richness. What steps are being taken to encourage overseas students to come to the UK and how much further funding can be supplied to replace the substantial money, if not the collaboration, which is desperately needed for our research programmes?

My Lords, in relation to international students, the department is working with the Department for International Trade to amend the international education strategy. The clear message is that the UK is open for business and for international students to come at the start of the academic year, but we recognise that different arrangements may need to be made. Those arrangements are in train—for instance, with different visa situations—so that students can begin their courses remotely overseas. We are keenly aware and are doing all we can to support the sector at this difficult time.

My Lords, I am concerned about the potential disparity in support across the United Kingdom. Can my noble friend the Minister outline the measures to be taken by Her Majesty’s Government to ensure equity of support across Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as England? Can she confirm that the £100 million of public funding for research activities announced by my honourable friend the Science Minister will be available to each of the home nations?

My Lords, as I have outlined, the Government’s resource task force is specifically including the devolved Administrations. The changes to student finance affect students in Northern Ireland and Wales as well. We are in close touch with colleagues in Scotland, particularly in relation to English students who will study there and Scottish students who will come to the UK.

My Lords, I declare my interest as a recently appointed member and vice-chair of GB MET, a local FE college. The Government are allowing universities to charge students the full £9,250 annual tuition fee while our campuses remain closed—as long as there are “highest standards of online teaching”. Does the Minister accept that many courses are simply unsuitable for online learning? Students cannot access studios, laboratories, libraries and placements during the current pandemic. The market-driven higher education system has forced students to see themselves as consumers, and they are not getting what they have paid for. It is not fair on students nor on the university institutions.

My Lords, most universities have adopted online provision. The Office for Students has been very clear to the sector that the quality of provision that is being offered should be maintained during this period. If a student has any complaints about the quality of what they are being offered, they should deal with it first with their university—but, as the noble Lord will aware, the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education can adjudicate on the quality of student provision at a university.

My Lords, I declare my interest as a trustee of the Snowdon Trust, which assists disabled students with the extra expenses attributable to their disability. What steps will the Government take to ensure that disabled students are not further disadvantaged as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic; for example, by exempting them from the student number controls?

My Lords, the Office for Students has been very clear that the quality of provision for all students should be maintained. There has been particular advice in relation to disabled students and their access to online provision. A letter from the Minister to the sector has highlighted the need to make sure that, where online provision cannot meet the needs of students, they are able to access all the support that they need remotely, including the non-medical help that they are often entitled to. The Equality Act is still in force in relation to the provision of higher education.

How will the Government’s bailout measures and future policies help universities move away from the wasteful commercial model, where they see themselves as competing businesses, towards a more co-operative model of communities of scholars working for the common good? The kind of waste that could be eliminated is, as the Augar report highlighted, the £500 per student that is spent on marketing. Does the noble Baroness agree that universities cannot afford such sums?

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness. The £700 million is the estimate of the Office for Students for the specific access of higher education to all the schemes that have been outlined. Noble Lords spent many days debating the Higher Education and Research Act, and the Office for Students is a modern regulator, encouraging greater innovation and putting student choice at the centre of our system.

I call the noble Baroness, Lady Blower. No? Then I call the noble Lord, Lord Addington. We will come back to the noble Baroness, Lady Blower, if we have time.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that certain practices will have to change in lockdown? One of them is that anybody who needs an assessment of a disability can do that online as opposed to doing it the traditional way, face to face. I remind the House of my declared interests.

The noble Lord is correct; where an assessment is needed for disability support allowance, it needs to be done remotely. We are seeing that in these difficult circumstances there are situations where the use of remote technology has proved to be advantageous, and it might end up being a change or an option in any current system.

May I congratulate the Government on increasing the number of extra graduates this year? The number amounts to about 34,000, and the Government will insist on certain courses for 10,000. I suggest that they should insist only on courses for the entire number that are related to improving the British economy. We need more technically trained people: more doctors, dentists, midwives, nurses and medical workers. We also need more technicians, engineers and computer specialists who understand cybersecurity, artificial intelligence and virtual reality. We do not need more humanities students—they can learn from home virtually—but the physical presence of all those other students at a university will be needed in September this year.

My Lords, in addition to the forecast numbers and the 5% uplift, 10,000 places are reserved, and I am pleased to be able to tell my noble friend that half of them will be in the healthcare sector. Further details on the allocation of the 10,000 additional places will be released in due course.

The measures are a welcome step for cash flow but do not avoid the projected fall in income of £2.5 billion and the cost to the economy of £6 billion and 60,000 jobs. What is the Government’s response to this assessment from the UCU/London Economics report?

My Lords, the package that has been announced will stabilise the sector and give all the clarity that can be given at the moment. As I have outlined, the forecast is that the sector will be eligible for £700 million as regards loans and the job retention scheme. However, we are working with and keeping in close touch with the sector. The Office for Students has an individual contacting every provider so that we are in touch with their financial situation going forward.

My Lords, the time allowed for the Private Notice Question has elapsed. Virtual Proceedings will now adjourn until a convenient point after 2 pm for the debate in the name of the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York.

Virtual Proceeding suspended.