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Support for University Students: Covid-19

Volume 810: debated on Monday 8 February 2021

Commons Urgent Question

The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Wednesday 3 February.

“The honourable Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) is an assiduous campaigner for students and has spoken to me many times on the topic. I agree with him on how incredibly difficult this time has been for students, given the unprecedented disruption caused by the global pandemic.

Throughout the pandemic, I have been working with the universities to prevent students from getting into hardship. We have worked with the Office for Students to allow flexibility in the spending of £256 million of student premium money, enabling it to be spent in relation to hardship, mental health and digital poverty. In December we announced an initial £20 million of additional student hardship funding, and yesterday I announced £50 million, taking the total funding available to £70 million for the remainder of this financial year. My focus as Universities Minister has always been to work with the sector to make sure that the right support gets to the students who need it the most, and the new student hardship funding will really benefit those students by putting money into their pockets.

Providers will have flexibility in how they distribute the funding to their students in a way that is best prioritised to meet the greatest needs. Given that we have asked the majority of students not to return to their university term-time accommodation in this lockdown, support might include help for students facing additional costs arising from having to maintain accommodation in more than one location, or assistance for students to access teaching remotely. The funding can be distributed to a wide population of students, including postgraduates and international students. The House can be assured that we will continue to monitor the impact this funding is having on students.

Also, because of the changing position on face-to-face teaching and the occupation of accommodation, student maintenance loan entitlement for the current term will not be reassessed if students are still incurring accommodation costs away from home. This means that students in receipt of the away-from-home loan rate will retain the maintenance loan paid at the start of the spring term.

The Government recognise that many students are facing additional mental health challenges due to the pandemic, and at every stage I have reinforced to providers the importance of prioritising mental health. I have established the higher education mental health and well-being working group, and I have worked with the Office for Students to provide Student Space, which has funding of up to £3 million.

I agree that the pandemic has been tough on young people, particularly students. The £70 million that we have allocated to student hardship for the remainder of this financial year will help those students who are most in need because of the pandemic.”

My Lords, last week a survey from the Office for National Statistics found that 63% of students have reported worsening mental health and well-being since the start of the 2020-21 academic year, compared with 57% last November. The Covid-19 pandemic has intensified the student mental health crisis, with many isolated at home, without support, unfairly paying for accommodation that they are forbidden to use, and feeling a sense of hopelessness about their futures. With placements cancelled, jobs disappearing and whole industries at risk of collapse, the only certainty is that they are faced with significant student debt. The pandemic has undoubtedly been especially hard for students with disabilities, who face additional challenges and might need more support to continue their studies and find a worthwhile job once they have left. Will the Government commit to providing further funding to support the substantial increase in demand that university well-being and support services are experiencing, as well as direct support for students with disabilities?

The noble Lord is absolutely right to point to the mental health and well-being challenges that the pandemic places on students. The Government are very alive to these. We wrote to vice-chancellors in October, outlining that student welfare must remain a priority during the pandemic. My honourable friend the Universities Minister convened a working group of representatives from the higher education and healthcare sectors to look into what we can do. We have been working with the Office for Students to provide Student Space, which has been funded by up to £3 million to bridge any gaps in support that exist for students and their mental health needs, although I am pleased to say that universities themselves have been doing great work directly with students. Of course, as the noble Lord knows, last week we announced an additional £50 million of funding, on top of the £20 million that we provided in December, to assist students who face hardship at this difficult time.

My Lords, everyone will be pleased that the Government are making this additional financial support available for students to help with their well-being and mental health. University students will, naturally, be worried and anxious about their academic work and assessments. What is the Minister’s view of essay mills and contract-cheating companies that prey on students’ vulnerability and isolation? Will the Government finally bring in legislation to act against those companies?

My Lords, those who prey on the vulnerability of students, particularly at this time, deserve our condemnation. We were concerned about online provision from these companies even before the pandemic, and of course we will continue to monitor that.

My Lords, I congratulate the Minister on the additional help that has been given to students at this time but, given that we are still charging students an interest rate of 5.6% on student loans while they are studying, when the Government can borrow money at 0.3%, might this not be a good time to implement the Economic Affairs Committee recommendation that we cut the interest rate on student loans?

My Lords, my noble friend has long taken an interest in this matter through his work on your Lordships’ Economic Affairs Committee. The Government have already announced that the maximum fees will remain at £9,250 for a standard full-time course, and we intend to freeze the maximum tuition fee caps for 2022 and 2023—the fifth year in succession that maximum fees have been frozen—to make sure that university education is available to, and affordable for, those who want it.

My Lords, I, too, welcome the additional funding announced last week, but what action are the Government planning to take on the QAA’s guidance, which says that thousands of students might have to repeat a year because of the professional nature of their qualifications and the lack of practical teaching? To pick up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, will those students have to pay an additional year’s tuition if they have to repeat a year, and, again on the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, will the Government at least contemplate for existing students a payment freeze on interest—if nothing else, a sort of holiday on the interest rate payments or a reduction of those payments? In piling on debt for those students, the amount charged is ridiculous.

We have been prioritising a return to face-to-face teaching for courses which, as the noble Baroness says, have to be delivered in person. They include courses for students studying medical, clinical and healthcare-related subjects, including nursing, social work, dentistry and veterinary studies. Universities have been working very hard to ensure that the quality of tuition they provide is maintained at a high standard, and we have been very clear that it should be. We want to see minimum disruption to people’s study, even during the challenging circumstances of the pandemic.

My Lords, while the short-term support offered by the Government to students facing financial difficulties is most welcome, the pandemic has also generated uncertainty about graduate employment in the short, medium and long term. What plans do Her Majesty’s Government have for supporting students and graduates who are or will be seeking skilled graduate employment?

The right reverend Prelate is right; this has been a challenge. From taking A-levels, to being at university, to graduating: as he says, these are difficult times. The Government are providing support to people going into employment as well as to students currently completing their studies. We want to make sure that we look after people at every stage of that journey.

Additional funding is welcome, but the University of Greenwich, of which I happen to be chancellor, is experiencing what many other universities are experiencing in London: the removal of the London-weighting element of the teaching grant funding allocation. This is having a very adverse effect on our financial viability, costing us some £2.5 million per year. We put disadvantaged children and children and young people from minority ethnic backgrounds at the very forefront of our concerns in the first part of the Government’s levelling-up agenda. We are finding it very difficult to do this in the face of this cut in our funding allocation. Will the Government reconsider their decisions in that regard to enable us to do that much more for these needy students?

The noble Lord is right to point to the impact the pandemic has had on institutions as well as the students studying at them; I commend the work that they do. The Government have already provided significant support for the higher education sector, bringing forward £2 billion of tuition fee payments, providing £280 million of grant funding for research and establishing a loan scheme to cover up to 80% of a university’s income losses from international students. That, of course, is on top of the generous package of support that my right honourable friend the Chancellor provided for businesses, so we certainly are providing the assistance that institutions need.

Have the Government given any consideration to the plight of overseas students, who are paying higher fees than home students and have the added problem of living in a land not their own?

I am pleased to reassure my noble friend that the hardship funding, including the additional £50 million announced last week, can be distributed to a wide population of students, including international students studying here in the UK. We want to make sure we support people in hardship, wherever they come from.

My Lords, one or two Edinburgh students I know personally have suffered considerably. Many were shut in their rooms for a fortnight when one of them contracted the virus. Should students who can prove limited access to education at various times have to pay a full rent? Should remote learning without proper tutorials not be compensated during a pandemic? I am assuming the virus is not a devolved matter.

Many universities and accommodation providers have already offered rent refunds for students who have been asked to stay away from their term-time accommodation. We welcome that and strongly encourage others to do the same. We have been asking all providers of student accommodation to make sure that they have the students’ best interests at heart.

Following on from the question of the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, does the Minister agree that student accommodation providers that are still charging students rent when they are having to work from home are completely wrong? There is no point in just encouraging them to take action. What action are the Government taking to stop this exploitation?

My Lords, the Government do not run the accommodation for students, but we do applaud those universities and institutions that have taken action and encourage others to do the same. For commercial tenancies the Government have, as the noble Lord will know, made a package of financial support available to tenants, but where they can continue to pay the rent they should do so. We encourage all landlords to take a pragmatic and compassionate approach during this pandemic.

My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has now elapsed. I apologise to the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, that there was not time to take her question.

Sitting suspended.