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House of Lords Hansard
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Students’ Return to Universities
01 October 2020
Volume 806

Statement

The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Tuesday 29 September.

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to 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 be 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 of 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 10 September, set out a tiered approach in higher education. 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 well-being 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 for 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 is equally important for those youngsters who have left college or school as well. 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.”

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My Lords, the situation that students face as they return to university is deeply concerning. Outbreaks are spreading, thousands are now isolating, parents are increasingly worried for their children and university staff working hard to prepare for a safe return are both anxious and angry. This situation was not inevitable, but many rightly feel let down by the Government. We need a plan to get testing fit for purpose, access to remote learning for students who are isolating, and security for the future of our universities.

I ask the Minister to start resolving that today by answering some key questions. Should students who have not yet moved to campus still do so? What steps are the Government urgently taking to speed up access to Covid-19 testing at universities? What support is being offered to those institutions that are setting up their own testing facilities? How do the Government intend to increase digital access for isolating students? As a minimum, we need answers to these points if people who are involved in the university sector and education are to have some confidence of a way forward while things progress as they are.

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My Lords, I thank the Minister for the Statement. We on these Benches very much welcome the announcements on vocational education, particularly the flexible lifelong learning entitlement, of which we have been extolling the virtues for several years.

Regarding the apprenticeship scheme, a flagship policy of the coalition Government that has rather lost its way in recent years, we think we have seen significant reductions in the number of apprentices and the number of young people using the scheme. We need to listen to business and industry about how we can make the apprenticeship scheme work again, particularly for the creative industries.

The Government’s Kickstart programme did not actually figure in this Statement but, again, it supports young people. There is a risk that it does not provide support for those most at risk, a concern shared by many youth organisations. Rather than taking up time now, I will write to the Minister about the problems of eligibility and how they can be overcome.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, I am horrified that hundreds of thousands of students have returned to their universities, often in cities and urban areas and often living in local communities. Students like to celebrate their return to university and to socialise, and we have seen over 20 cases of Covid affecting those students. It seems to me that the possibility of being able to learn online was very easy for students, so why did we bring them back? What was the scientific advice? What was the modelling that said we could bring students back to university, when they could easily have learned online, without a proper testing regime? There might have been the tests but there were not the facilities to get the test results quickly in place.

In my own city we have 70,000 students returning, many of them living in houses and flats in local communities. Many universities have monetarised their accommodation with private agreements with companies such as Unite Students and CRM, and part of those agreements is for occupancy rates of 80% to 90%. Will the Government reimburse students if they are forced to relinquish their accommodation through illness or through a decision that it is not safe for students to return to university after Christmas?

Students self-isolating in a very small space brings additional problems. Has the DfE been in touch with each university to see what additional support can be provided, be it for mental health or other needs?

In Liverpool today a local lockdown has been announced, under which different households cannot mix. How does this affect university students from different households who are sharing a house?

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I thank both noble Lords for their questions and their attention to this issue. Starting university is a stressful experience at the best of times—people are often living away from home for the first time—but particularly so in the current circumstances. As the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, said, it is stressful not just for the students but for their parents, families and the university staff looking after them. That is why my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has said that throughout this pandemic our priority has always been to keep young people as safe as possible while they continue to learn.

The noble Lord, Lord Bassam, asked whether students should currently go to university. Yes, they should, if their university says that it is safe. At the beginning of this week, we had 80% of universities welcoming students back. It will be 90% by the beginning of next week. Students should check with their university and certainly go unless their university tells them not to.

The noble Lord also asked about testing. We are testing 225,000 a day at the moment, with a target to increase that to 500,000 by the end of the month. The message to students is clear, as it is to everyone else: if you have symptoms, please get a test.

The noble Lords, Lord Bassam and Lord Storey, asked about digital access. The Government have provided over £100 million to help provide laptops and devices for disadvantaged children and young people so that they can access the education and services they need. This includes devices for care leavers, including those studying at university. We have been working with universities, which have been adept and adaptable in the current circumstances, by shifting their provision online, as they did at the end of the last academic year and continuing that work over the summer, ready for the start of the new academic year.

I think the noble Lord, Lord Storey, was anticipating the Statement on further education which my right honourable friend is making in another place as we speak. Perhaps if he writes on that we can correspond once it has been made in another place.

He also asked about face-to-face learning rather than online learning. There are some courses where face-to-face provision is important—for instance, in the creative sector and for medical degrees, which are so important in the current circumstances. Universities are using a blend of online and face-to-face teaching with the provisions and mitigations in place to do that safely.

The noble Lord, Lord Storey, asked about accommodation and households. In student halls, it is universities and HE providers that determine what a household is, often around a shared kitchen or shared bathroom facilities. They will provide advice to students about how they can safely self-isolate in a household if that is what they need to do in their part of the country. The Government play no direct role in provision of student accommodation, whether managed by universities or the private sector, but we have urged universities and private hall providers to be fair in their decisions about rent charges in the current climate. Some universities and large companies have waived rents for the summer term or released students early from their contracts at the end of the last academic year, which we welcomed. If students think their accommodation provider is treating them unfairly, they can raise a complaint under the student accommodation code if their provider is a member.

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We now come to 20 minutes allocated for Back-Bench questions. I ask that questions and answers be brief so that I can call the maximum number of speakers.

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My Lords, the Minister will be aware that cash-strapped universities are currently crucially dependent on overseas students. Yesterday at the virtual court meeting of the University of York, we were told of their concern about the shortage of flights from eastern Asia. Students are not arriving and they face long delays. Surely, the Government can collaborate with universities to see how they can help. Airlines have spare capacity, aircraft are sitting around and, presumably, students will be prepared to pay to travel to their academic work here. If the Government can move in to see what they can do to help, it would be much appreciated.

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I am very happy to tell my noble friend that not only will we but we are working with the sector and others on these issues. We have been working with the Civil Aviation Authority to monitor the availability of commercial flights for international students travelling to the UK. We have been working with Universities UK International to support the higher education sector with chartering flights if that is what is needed. The Department for International Trade has been working closely with, for instance, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs to secure the necessary approvals for flights to the UK from China. I am pleased to say that it has recently been successful in getting such permissions.

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My Lords, I declare my interest as chair of governors of Cardiff Metropolitan University, Welsh University of the Year. In Wales from last Easter, hybrid learning was planned based on two-metre distancing. Given concerns for the risks to student mental health in the absence of face-to-face delivery, are the Government asking English universities urgently to consider the application of these design principles for all courses, not just in healthcare and arts and design?

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We expect the majority of universities to be open with a blend of face-to-face and online teaching. As the noble Baroness said, that is important for the provision of education and the mental health and well-being of students, because university is rightly a sociable environment. We recognise that many students and staff will face additional mental health challenges. The guidance we have provided to the sector covers the need for universities to provide additional mental health and well-being support. We are doing what we can, for instance, with the money we have made available for hardship funds for those the current circumstances are causing extra stress.

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My Lords, the Statement says that Ministers will work with universities to ensure that all students can return home for Christmas. Will the Minister tell the House what steps the Government are taking to work with universities to ensure that students’ mental health and capacity to learn are not compromised by draconian lockdowns of halls of residence? Has the Department for Education been in touch with the Office for Students to prevent this happening again?

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I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, for the opportunity to reiterate what my right honourable friend says: we are working with universities to ensure that all students are supported to return home safely and can spend Christmas with their loved ones if they choose to. We will be providing guidance after consultation with the sector to say how that can be done safely at the end of term. Regarding the Office for Students, the noble Baroness may have seen that Sir Michael Barber, its chair, has written today in the Daily Telegraph about the work the OfS is doing to support students. Its student panel is meeting today to discuss how students see the situation, which will inform the response. That is in addition to the HE task force the Government have set up so that we can talk to the sector more generally.

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My Lords, if we heard that a third-world country had locked up its students without access to food we would rightly be horrified. Yet that is what this Conservative Government have done to our students. The possible harm from Covid transmission is nothing compared to the harm from this draconian action, which will lead young people to distrust authority and despise politicians. Can the Minister persuade his colleagues, as a matter of urgency, to reverse this dreadful punishment and allow our students to be students?

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Well, I do not recognise the characterisation that the noble Baroness gives of what is going on. As my right honourable friend said in his Statement, students as well as the wider community accept that in a global pandemic there have to be restrictions, for the good of themselves and the community more widely. But we do not believe that we should be inflicting any stricter measures on students; we are asking no more or less of them than we would of any other adult at this difficult time. We are working with universities to make sure that they can support the students studying there to get on with their lives as safely as possible and benefit from their education, while keeping themselves and the community safe.

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My Lords, Scottish students and those from other EU countries attending Scottish universities pay no tuition fees, and it is now reported that they are being offered discounted accommodation costs. What is the Secretary of State doing to ensure that every student attending university in the United Kingdom is treated fairly? If the universities cannot deliver the product they sold, why should young people have to meet the full cost?

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As my noble friend points out, university provision is a devolved matter and different Administrations take different approaches throughout the UK. Her Majesty’s Government expect universities to continue to deliver a high-quality academic experience. As I said, we have seen some fantastic and innovative ways in which universities have adapted to the current circumstances. It is between students and their provider as to whether they think they are getting the quality of education that they signed up for. An established process is in place for students with concerns about their education to follow in England and Wales: in the first instance, it will be through the Office of the Independent Adjudicator.

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My Lords, the Statement contains several excellent initiatives. My main concern is that students leaving home for the first time will be under additional pressure to socialise. Meeting and sharing concerns with others are essential for mental health. Under such pressures, it is easy to forget the somewhat complex guidance. Will the Minister stress the need for displays at places of learning, emphasising the risk of careless mingling to the students’ own life chances and the health and well-being of those they hold dear?

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I thank the noble Lord for his welcome for what is contained in the Statement. He is absolutely right: as I say, universities should be a sociable experience. People learn not just in lecture halls but in discussions with their fellow students and those around them. We have been providing guidance to HE providers to make sure that people can enjoy as normal and fulfilling a university experience as possible at the moment, while keeping themselves and those around them safe.

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My Lords, I should declare a lapsed interest as, until midnight, I was chair of council of Lancaster University. Does the noble Lord recognise the enormous efforts that universities have made to provide a Covid-secure environment for their students and, in particular, to sustain face-to-face teaching, which I believe to be the essence of the university experience? Can he explain why, to the latest knowledge I have, there is a very serious weakness in the provision of testing facilities on campuses? At Lancaster, we have been promised the possibility of a mobile unit in something like 10 days’ time, which would be on campus for a couple of days. If we are to sustain this Covid-secure environment, we need more action on testing.

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I congratulate the noble Lord on the completion of his term as pro-vice chancellor at Lancaster. He will be a tough act to follow, but I see that my right honourable friend—as he would be if he were still in another place—Alistair Burt is going to give following in his footsteps his best shot. The noble Lord is absolutely right: we want to see face-to-face teaching where that is safe and possible. Universities are doing a blend of online and face-to-face, depending on the courses and the circumstances, and on the public health needs in their locality. We are targeting testing capacity at the areas that need it most, including where there are outbreaks, and prioritising at-risk groups. But we are working closely with universities so that we can make sure that they are keeping staff and students as safe as possible.

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The noble Lord, Lord Rogan, has run into a technical problem so I call the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson.

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I declare as interest as Chancellor of Cardiff University. I am very proud of what that university has done to sustain both face-to-face and online teaching. Cardiff is one of the universities offering testing: ours is asymptomatic testing, which will enable up to 1,000 staff and students per day to be tested. It is one of the latest generation of much more accurate tests, using the sophisticated technology that underlies the Government’s Moonshot ambition. What financial support do the Government plan to give to universities to increase the availability of their tests, because it costs millions to set this up, and to allow them to be opened up to the wider public? Will the Government fast-track the accreditation for such university laboratories and link them into the national network?

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I commend the work of Cardiff and other universities, not just for providing tests for students and staff on their campuses but of course for their work in developing a vaccine. Our universities really are at the forefront of it, which is why we need to make sure that they are operating and working as well as they can. The Government are working closely with NHS Test and Trace to get to a position in which all universities have access to a testing centre within 1.5 miles of their campus, with priority for universities in areas of national intervention. On the financial point, I will write to the noble Baroness with further information if she would be happy with that.

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My Lords, understandably we hear much about the short-term impact of the pandemic on students and universities, but there is a long-term impact too: for an increasing number of university students, the postgraduate outcomes are not great. May I encourage my noble friend the Minister to take this opportunity to examine all the choices that we offer to young people as they leave school, including further education colleges and apprenticeship routes? In many cases, these alternative routes may be more attractive and may lead to greater opportunities out in the world of work, especially in the challenging times ahead.

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My noble friend makes a very topical point. She will have seen our right honourable friend the Prime Minister’s speech on this very issue on Tuesday, when he talked about the new lifetime skills guarantee and addressing the gulf between so-called academic and so-called practical education. As he said, we want to end that bogus distinction between HE and FE. It is particularly topical because my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education is making a Statement on it in another place with further detail as we speak.

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My Lords, following the excellent example of the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, instead of locking up students and placing security officers outside their doors, does the Minister agree that students in Covid hotspots should be prioritised for double testing, whether or not they have symptoms? If they tested negative, they could get on with their lives; if positive, they would of course need to self-isolate. When will that be possible?

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As I said, we are prioritising testing. On double testing, I am afraid I cannot say more, but we will certainly take that back and reply more fully to the noble Baroness. Decisions on what measures are applied and where have to be made by local public health teams, based on the information that they receive through NHS Test and Trace. Universities themselves are not decision-makers there. As I say, we are asking the same of students as we are of any other adults around the country in these trying times.

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My Lords, the Minister talked about the provision of computers for students, but there seems to be a lot of variability in the quality and quantity of the online provision that is available. What discussions have the Government had with the regulator to make sure that there is a consistently high standard of online tuition, and that we can learn from best practice?

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As I said, the Office for Students task force is meeting today, and I am sure that will be one of the points raised and fed back so that we hear directly from students. We are making sure that we provide hardship funding for those who need it and IT equipment, targeted in particular at groups such as care leavers who can most benefit from them. I will certainly keep an eye on the situation, as I know the noble Baroness will.

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I declare an interest as a visiting professor lecturing at Plymouth University, and a visiting fellow at Cambridge University, on planning matters. So I will be doing that virtually this year.

I emphasise to the Minister my support for what they are doing. Keeping universities open is absolutely critical, because many students, if they were not able to complete their degree now, would never be able to go back to it, and there would not be the capacity in the university system to double-enter future students with current students for that to happen. So it is vital that universities are kept open. For that, many are struggling with the resourcing needed for the extra costs currently involved. Will the Minister continue to work closely with universities to meet their needs—accepting that some funding has already been provided?

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I completely agree with the noble Lord about the importance of keeping universities open and thank him for the part that he is personally playing in that. As Sir Michael Barber said today in his article, we cannot

“put a generation of young people’s lives on hold.”

We have to have the right mitigations to make sure that they are doing it safely, but we have to keep universities open for business, and the Government will continue to engage with the sector, as we are doing through the HE task force.

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My Lords, it has been reported that in some universities, private security guards, presumably employed by college authorities, secure and lock premises to prevent students leaving their halls of residence. Was there a vote on this matter in another place? If not, could the Minister explain under what legal authority this draconian action was taken?

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As I said in response to the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, decisions on what measures to apply, and where, are made by public health teams, based on information from NHS Test and Trace. It is not for universities to make those decisions but, as the noble Lord will be aware, as of Monday this week it is illegal to not self-isolate if you are notified by a public health official that you have tested positive or have had close contact with somebody who has tested positive, and that can be enforced by the police. Universities, as responsible providers, are there to make sure that guidance is being followed by those who are studying at them.

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My Lords, I draw the House’s attention to my registered interests.

Does my noble friend accept that on-campus learning is still important for the education and well-being of students, and that for students who live at home, often in multi-occupancy homes, while attending university, a physical campus learning space is essential? Will he join me to paying tribute to the University of Bolton, where I am a pro-vice chancellor, which, in very difficult local lockdown circumstances, has introduced a series of Covid measures that have enabled the university to continue to provide a guaranteed minimum level of contact learning?

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I certainly join my noble friend in providing that congratulation to the University of Bolton; that is exactly the sort of response we are seeing from across the sector to make sure that students get the high-quality education they expect. My noble friend is right that that should be accompanied by the student experience more broadly—learning to live away from home, meeting people from different backgrounds and exchanging ideas—which is such an integral part of the university experience. We need to make sure that universities are doing that and doing it safely.

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My Lords, in the Statement, the Secretary of State said:

“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.”

What is the latest scientific advice to universities, especially to those that do not have their own testing capacity?

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As my right honourable friend said, we continue to follow the scientific advice; this is a changing circumstance, and the advice changes as well. We are providing guidance to the sector, as we did most recently on 10 September, to inform universities as term began. As that changes, we will update it and provide it directly to universities. I imagine that that is published, but if it is not I will correct the record and write to the noble Baroness.

Sitting suspended.