Commons Urgent Question
The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Thursday 15 April.
“This Government recognise just how difficult the past year has been for students. Since the arrival of new and highly transmissible variants, we have had to adopt a cautious approach, in line with the wider restrictions. In January, we enabled only students on critical key worker courses to return, and from 8 March we allowed practical and creative students to resume face-to-face teaching. This week, we have announced that the final tranche of students will be able to return on 17 May, subject to step 3 of the road map. This decision was made, as promised, following a review during the Easter holidays. I understand the frustrations of students and parents; the pandemic has disproportionately impacted our young. That is one of the key reasons why we have worked with universities to ensure that education carried on throughout and that students can graduate on time.
Many things are indeed opening up in step 2, but most are outside and social mixing remains focused outside, and they do not involve the formation of new households. We know that, inside, the risk of transmission increases with the number of people mixing and the length of time they are together, which is why we are being cautious until stage 3.
The Office for National Statistics estimates that 23% of students are yet to return to their term-time accommodation, which still leaves up to 500,000 students yet to travel. Throughout the pandemic, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies has warned of the risk posed by the mass movement of students, especially given that they form new households.
At the heart of our decision was public health, but also student well-being. The last thing any of us wants is for students to have to repeatedly self-isolate, as some did last autumn. That would not only have been damaging to their mental health and wellbeing, but would have risked the ability to graduate of some students studying creative and practical subjects.
This decision was taken not in isolation, but as part of the Government’s overall road map to reopening. Every relaxation—even those with a low impact and low risk—will have an impact, so we have to judge the impact of these relaxations cumulatively to ensure that the road map is irreversible.
The Government do recognise the financial pressures the pandemic has placed on students in the financial sense, including accommodation costs. That is why, this week, we have announced an additional £15 million, on top of the £70 million since last December and the £256 million of taxpayer funding that we enabled universities to access for hardship.
It is important to clarify that the exemptions still apply to students who need to return to their term-time accommodation for mental health reasons or because of a lack of study space. We have asked universities to make their facilities available to all students who are back, to support their mental health and well-being.
I end by assuring the House that I will continue to work closely with universities so that, together, we can support students, and especially those who will graduate this year.”
My Lords, the disruption to university students caused by the pandemic and subsequent government restrictions has meant that students have not enjoyed the university experience that they would have expected, ranging from teaching, lectures and seminars, access to specialist resources and facilities, and career-enhancing placements, as well as the social experience which forms an important part of university life. Indeed, many final-year students have been advised that they will not even be able to attend a graduation ceremony.
Universities report that anxieties are mounting among students, who feel underprepared for their final exams after more than 12 months of major disruption. Following the delayed government announcement on returning to campuses, many still do not know whether these exams will take place on campuses or online and their mental health is suffering as a consequence. What discussions have the Government had with universities about mitigation for students sitting their finals this summer, who have suffered disruption to their learning as a result of the pandemic? Will the Government please ensure that in future plans students are not the forgotten ones left to the end?
My Lords, the noble Lord sets out powerfully the disruption that students have faced to not only the academic element of their university experience but all the extra-curricular activities and the broader experience. The Government are very mindful of that; my honourable friend the Universities Minister engages directly with students and representative bodies and has set up a higher education task force to engage with the sector. Students and universities are certainly not being forgotten—they are being engaged with fulsomely.
My Lords, I declare an interest with three grandsons at Glasgow, Southampton and Bath, whose student experience, as the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, said, is a world away from what they were entitled to expect. Why must students wait until 17 May for a return? For many, that will mean missing out until the autumn, with their well-being, tuition and socialising all suffering, when most universities and students are more than ready to return now. Why are the Government so cavalier about our universities and so uncaring about the effect of their prevarications?
My Lords, our decisions have been taken with the well-being of students at their heart. Many students will be able to return from 17 May to engage with all the important experiences from that point. We do not want a situation where people return too early and have to self-isolate repeatedly, as has happened before. We are taking a cautious approach to make sure that we can move out of lockdown and recover from Covid.
My Lords, many institutions, including your Lordships’ House, seem to have adapted rather well to hybrid working. My daughter is in her first year at university, at Royal Holloway, and although she has missed the social life, she says she has actually quite enjoyed the learning experience. Could my noble friend the Minister outline whether the Government have any plans to investigate whether some sort of hybrid model of access to university education, which may offer more flexibility and affordability, could be made available in future?
I am glad my noble friend’s daughter has been able to enjoy her first year of university, notwithstanding the pandemic. He is right that many institutions have proved very adaptable and innovative in the face of the challenges of Covid-19. The Secretary of State for Education commissioned Sir Michael Barber to undertake a review of the shift towards digital teaching and learning, which was published on 25 February. We are considering its implications, particularly its role in supporting flexible provision, and are introducing the lifelong loan entitlement from 2025, which will support modular learning and make it easier for people to study more flexibly over their lifetime.
My Lords, what evidence did the Government take and consider when deciding to include student returns in step 3 rather than step 2 of the road map? Professor Galbraith, vice-chancellor of Portsmouth, asked the Government to explain this, calling it “nonsensical” and “unfathomable” and saying that
“many universities will have finished their teaching”
by that time. He said:
“Students can now buy a book on British history in Waterstones and discuss it with a tattoo artist while they have their body decorated, but they cannot do the same thing in a Covid-secure environment with their university lecturer.”
I have seen first-hand, as chancellor of the University of Birmingham, the amount of testing and Covid-safety measures that universities are taking. Other university chancellors, the Russell group and UUK have all called this disrespectful and late. Please could the Minister explain where the data is which shows that teaching spaces are safe, that there are low infection rates and that university students should be allowed to go back to campus? For how much longer will the Government take the university sector—the jewel in the crown of this country—for granted?
My Lords, we certainly do not take it for granted. We have outlined a cautious approach which is underpinned by data rather than dates. We worked extremely closely with scientists and SAGE to understand and model various scenarios to inform our plan. We also examined the economic and social data to gain a balanced understanding, which led to our decision. Some things the noble Lord set out, such as tattoo parlours, take place in the same vicinity as people live; the difference here is people travelling to a part of the country in which they do not reside to form new households. That is why it is different and why we have made the decision we have.
My Lords, I declare my interest as chancellor of the University of Greenwich. Covid has meant additional costs for universities and students; they are out of pocket. Will the Minister assure us that his department will take that into account in future funding decisions for both universities and students, and will he please bear in mind, particularly for those universities either in London or working with particularly disadvantaged students, the additional costs of living and working in London, which KPMG estimates at some 14% additional cost? Will he make sure that those factors are taken into account in university funding, particularly in relation to the current consultation on London weighting?
My Lords, we understand the difficulty that students have faced throughout the pandemic, in London and elsewhere. That is why the Government announced last week a further £15 million of student hardship funding, meaning that, in total, we have made an additional £85 million of funding available for student hardship this year, on top of the £256 million of taxpayer-funded student premium funding which is already available to providers in London and more widely to draw on towards student hardship funds for this academic year.
My Lords, I declare my interest as chair of the Office for Students. Will my noble friend join me in commending those institutions which have offered rent rebates to students after a very difficult year for many and in calling for more to do the same?
This is my first opportunity to congratulate my noble friend on his new role; I look forward to his carrying it out with great rigour and independence, as I know he will. We welcome the decision from many universities and accommodation providers to offer rent rebates for students who need to stay away from their term-time address. We urge all large providers to join them and offer students partial refunds. We ask all providers of student accommodation, including universities, to make sure that their rental policies have students’ best interests at heart and that they are communicated clearly.
My Lords, prior to the pandemic last year, UK universities and their union demanded the stamping out of casual contracts and job precarity for staff in the higher education sector. As university teaching begins to return to normal in the coming academic year, there are increased calls to reimburse students’ tuition fees for lost teaching. Given that academic staff have continued to provide the same amount of labour, if not more, to produce innovative online teaching during this uncertain period, on top of managing disruptions to their personal research, how do the Government plan to protect and provide job security for academic staff going forward?
My Lords, university staff have worked brilliantly to minimise the disruption to students throughout the pandemic. Employment and staffing are of course decisions for universities, as autonomous organisations, but, like other businesses, they can avail themselves of the support which Her Majesty’s Treasury has made available to businesses during the pandemic.
My Lords, I condemn the Government’s last-minute decision to deny half a million students the opportunity to get back to their universities and resume face-to-face instruction. In my view, it shows a scandalous lack of judgment about the needs of these students, who have missed out on not just normal learning but the social experience of university. Since large numbers of students have returned anyway, the argument about the formation of new universities in the Answer is utterly unconvincing, especially in the context of data on the very low levels of hospitalisation for Covid. Will the Government compensate these depressed and disappointed students by funding the universities to extend the summer term into July?
I must disagree with the noble Baroness. The Office for National Statistics estimates that 23% of students are yet to return to their term-time accommodation, which leaves up to half a million students yet to travel. Throughout the pandemic, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies has warned of the risk posed by mass movements; that is what underpins our cautious approach.