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Universities: Impact of Industrial Action on Students

Volume 828: debated on Thursday 16 March 2023

Question

Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact on students of industrial action in universities.

My Lords, while the Government play no role in such disputes, we continue to monitor the impact of strikes with employers and their representatives. This Government set up the Office for Students in 2018, which has wide-ranging powers to ensure that students’ interests are protected and expects providers to do all they can to avoid disruption to students. I urge all sides to work together so that students do not suffer further learning loss.

I am very grateful for the Minister’s reply. As she is aware, students—and not only students—have had a very difficult time over the past few years, particularly with Covid and the cost of living crisis. The Sutton Trust has found that 49% of university students are doing a second job to be financially supported. With 10 to 15 days of strike action meaning that in some universities students have not been able to have their lectures or tutorials, there is real stress and anxiety for final-year students about whether they will get certificates at the end of their course. I know that universities are autonomous, but could the Office for Students give more direct advice about how we can support students in these difficult times? Given that students have big loans, will they get some of that loan back?

On the noble Lord’s question relating to the role of the Office for Students, obviously it is the regulator of higher education in this country; it does not get involved in industrial disputes. It has a part to play in making sure that universities continue to meet their conditions of registration, which allow them to be eligible for public funding, and their obligations under consumer protection law.

My Lords, can I push the Minister on the last part of the noble Lord’s question? I should declare an interest: I have two sons who are at university at the moment, both of whom have lost a lot of days due to strike action. Normally when an organisation provides a service for a fee, it has to refund part of that fee if does not provide the service. Why is that not the case with universities?

Universities have obligations under their conditions of registration and under consumer law. Students can make complaints to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator. There were 2,763 new complaints in 2021, and we will shortly get the figures for 2022—that figure covers all issues but may well cover this one also. It is our expectation and hope that universities will respond and support students to receive the education to which they are entitled.

My Lords, I became a university teacher in 1958 and I have never been on strike for a single day in that period, nor would I. However, throughout that long period, university teachers have been underpaid. There are difficulties now about their contracts, which was not the case earlier, in particular the use of younger, untrained teachers in a way that imperils jobs. Could one not give more professional power to university teachers so that they are properly treated?

I am sympathetic to the points that the noble Lord makes, but, as the House is aware, universities are autonomous. As autonomous institutions, they are responsible for pay and pension provision for their staff.

My Lords, as one who has three granddaughters who have been through university in the past three or four years—the last one is still going through—I know that they are being very short-changed. One granddaughter had not a single lecture last year at a very important and prestigious university; others are given “trigger warnings” before they can read Tennyson or Jane Austen. They really are getting a rough time.

I am not sure how to respond to the trigger warnings. I have tried to resist raising this, but, since everyone else has mentioned their family, I have a husband who is doing a part-time degree at the moment. His evening of teaching falls every single time on a strike day, so I am familiar with the issues to which the noble Lords refer. Universities are expected to take steps to avoid or limit disruption to learning. We would encourage all of them to do that.

My Lords, in her initial Answer, the Minister said that the Government play no role. Surely the Government set the whole legislative framework in which universities work and all the financial arrangements under which they operate. Is it not about time that the Government accepted their responsibility for all the industrial disputes that are taking place?

The Government absolutely accept responsibility for those areas where they are responsible, but I think there would be a lot of resistance in your Lordships’ House if they moved to reduce the autonomy of universities.

My Lords, I presume that the universities are not paying the lecturers on the days when they are on strike. Could those monies be used by way of restitution to the students? Might the Office for Students recommend that course, so that students could start issuing proceedings in the small claims court on a pro rata basis?

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, as long as an employer does not face a financial penalty—for example, in reimbursing students, or indeed with the railways, where the Government initially said they had no responsibility for settling the dispute—there is less incentive on the employer to get around the table to negotiate a fair settlement?

Obviously, the noble Baroness brings many years of expertise to this matter, but I think that employers in universities and other sectors of the economy are suffering great penalties—financial, reputational and in terms of their relationships with their customers—which have a considerable impact on them.

My Lords, I entirely accept that the Office for Students has overall responsibility for this issue, but, as we have heard, Ministers have a responsibility too. Is she saying that there is nothing at all that Ministers can do to try to mediate or to help in this dispute?

What I am saying is that we established the Office for Students to ensure that students’ interests are respected and upheld. The Government have no direct role in relation to the Universities Superannuation Scheme beyond the legislation that applies to all workplace pension schemes as regulated by the Pensions Regulator.

My Lords, there is a real complication between the pension scheme operated by universities and the pension scheme operated by the health service. Could the Minister talk to the Chancellor of the Exchequer about the contradiction between giving away £1 billion of public funding for consultants operating under the health service pension scheme and the situation faced by consultants in teaching hospitals, who have opted, or been encouraged, to take on a previous university pension scheme, which is now being completely changed? We might get some sense out of the issue of getting tutors back to work, if we could put a little of that £1 billion into resolving the pension problem for universities.