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Covid-19: Universities

Volume 804: debated on Tuesday 30 June 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what support they are providing to universities to assist them in dealing with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper, and in doing so I declare an interest as Chancellor of Cardiff University.

My Lords, in May we announced a package of stabilisation measures to ensure that we continue to look after the best interests of students, as well as supporting our world-class higher education system. We are bringing forward £2.6 billion of forecast tuition fee payments to help universities manage cash flow and provide support to students, and £100 million to help protect vital university research activities in England. We have also established a ministerial task force on research stabilisation.

My Lords, the Government’s recent announcement provides little new money, and 75% of that will be in loans. Universities’ research is heavily subsidised by international student fee income, which is predicted to drop by £2 billion this year. Many universities have made massive contributions of equipment, research and staffing to the fight against coronavirus. Does the Minister accept that they now need a much more ambitious package of support, because they are making research and staff cutbacks at this moment?

The noble Baroness is absolutely right to point out the vital contribution that universities are making to solving the pandemic, which is putting pressures on them as well as on everybody else. She referred to the further package of support which the Government announced this weekend. In addition to bringing forward the tuition fee payments which I mentioned in my Answer, the Government are providing a package of support to universities to continue research and innovation. That includes £280 million of taxpayer funding available to sustain UK Research and Innovation and national academy grant-funded research, which is available immediately. From the autumn, there is a further package consisting of low-interest loans with long payback periods and supplemented by a further amount of government grants. I am therefore not sure that I accept what she says about the Government’s response being inadequate.

My Lords, universities make a significant contribution to their local communities and economies, particularly smaller institutions that attract a larger proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds. These make a significant contribution to their local context, particularly in this pandemic. In particular, several Cathedrals Group universities during the 2018-19 academic year had 20% undergraduate students from low-participation—POLAR4—backgrounds. How will the Government work with higher education institutions to maintain the widening of access and retention of students, especially those preparing for key public service roles that have been so important during this pandemic crisis?

The right reverend Prelate is absolutely right to point out the vital contribution made by smaller and specialist higher education providers; I know there are a number in his own diocese, as there are around the country. He is right too to point out the importance of encouraging people from all backgrounds to continue to go to university and to avail themselves of the benefits that it can bring. That is why I am pleased that higher education providers can draw on existing funding, which is worth around £23 million a month at the moment, to provide hardship funds and support for disadvantaged students who are particularly affected by Covid-19.

My Lords, I declare my interest as chairman of the Royal College of Music. Music conservatoires have been particularly seriously impacted by the emergency. As small institutions, they do not have the scale, financial headroom or borrowing capacity of the large universities, or significant research income, and are highly dependent on tuition fees, including from a high proportion of international students. As the future on that front is so uncertain, does my noble friend agree that there is an overwhelming case for a temporary increase in the specialist institutional funding which is essential to their sustainability? That would be a clear sign of the Government’s commitment to music and the wider creative economy.

My noble friend is absolutely right to draw your Lordships’ attention to the huge value of small and specialist providers such as music conservatoires, which have such benefits for society, our culture and indeed our economy. As chairman of the Royal College of Music, he is a redoubtable champion for such institutions. Like all higher education providers, these institutions are eligible for the business support schemes, like any other business. However, I hope I can reassure him that the Government are working closely with higher education providers of all shapes and sizes to make sure that things such as our visa regulations are as flexible as possible for international students in these unprecedented circumstances.

My Lords, many university students in England have been missing tuition and access to libraries, laboratories and other university facilities, and may face financial hardship. The Minister says that the Government will not cut the amount paid to universities in tuition fees, but will they reduce sums to be recovered from formerly affected students in later life?

The noble and gallant Lord is right to point out some of the many ways in which the university experience is being affected by this pandemic with regard to access to libraries, laboratories and so on. I am pleased that universities across the sector have responded swiftly and creatively to ensure that they remain open and that students can continue to avail themselves of high-quality education. Universities are autonomous and responsible for setting their own fees, and of course, as they approach the forthcoming academic year, if they decide to charge full fees, they will want to ensure that they can continue to deliver courses which are fit for purpose and which help students to progress their qualifications. However, any matter regarding the level of those fees and refunds is first and foremost for the providers and those who apply to them.

My Lords, I declare my interest as a trustee of LAMDA. In the absence of more appropriate emergency grant funding to compensate for irrecoverable loss of revenues, the Government have encouraged universities to apply for business interruption loans. How does the Minister think these loans, designed for profit-making companies, can be repaid by non-profit HE institutions, other than at the expense of the quality of courses for future generations of students?

The noble Viscount rightly points out that universities, like other businesses, whether they make profits or not, are eligible to apply to the Government’s business support schemes. However, he is also right to point out the wider societal benefits that universities bring, which is why the Government brought forward the additional package of measures which I outlined in my Answer.

My Lords, what plans do the Government have to reform student and university funding to enable a greater number of people, especially mature learners, to undertake short higher education courses and build up to a full degree in a way that suits them? That will be increasingly important as individuals reskill post Covid.

The noble Baroness is absolutely right that many mature students and others may wish to consider courses of different lengths and varieties, and the Government are glad to see that wide range of courses offered. As she says, that will be particularly important over the coming months. The package of support which the Government have announced is of course available to providers irrespective of the length and format of the courses they offer.

My Lords, I declare an interest as an academic at the University of Hull and as chair of the Higher Education Commission, which produced a report on the value to the United Kingdom of the export of higher education. Given how crucial that export is and that from next year EU students will no longer be subject to home fees, will the Government consider extending the new graduate route post-study work visa to three or four years to ensure that the United Kingdom has a competitive offer to international students?

My noble friend draws attention to the new graduate route which comes into effect from next summer, which allows people graduating from UK universities to stay here in work of any level and any remuneration for up to two years— an increased and very generous offer. That is part of the Government’s ambition to increase the number of international students coming to study here in the United Kingdom.