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Online Learning: Universities and Covid-19

Volume 682: debated on Monday 12 October 2020

What steps he is taking to help ensure university students have access to digital and online learning during the covid-19 outbreak. (907349)

The Government are working to ensure that all students have access to digital learning, including by helping providers to draw upon the existing funding of £256 million for the year 2020-21 to go towards the purchase of IT equipment and wider hardship support. The Government expect universities to continue to deliver high-quality academic experiences for all students.

The Secretary of State should have seen the new analysis today that shows that infection rates on university campuses are up to seven times higher than those in surrounding areas. There are fears that this will spread the virus to higher-risk groups in the local community. The Government should have moved teaching online before term started, as the University and College Union recommended. Will the Minister accept the Government’s error in not doing so and instruct universities to move to online learning as the default? Or will she and the Government continue to play Russian roulette with the lives of students, staff and local communities?

The Government have prioritised education. We do not believe it would be right to put students’ lives and academic journeys on hold. Although only a small proportion of university populations have covid, it is an awful experience for every student who is having to self-isolate, which is why it is so important that support—from providing food to mental health and wellbeing support—is there for those students. I was pleased to see the Universities UK statement last week detailing the sector’s commitment to that support, which is in line with exactly what the Government expect.

In the Education Select Committee sitting last Tuesday, the Minister was unable to answer how many students are self-isolating and therefore totally reliant on accessing digital and online learning. She was also unable to answer how many students have covid-19; how we will ensure that tests are available to students; when the two-week late “imminent” guidance, with robust frequently asked questions on students returning home for Christmas, will be published; or even how many students are currently learning only online. What impact does the Minister think her Government’s incompetence and inability to answer basic questions about covid-19 in our universities is having on the spread of the virus in university towns and cities?

I will begin with the Christmas guidance, which is certainly not late—I am sure the hon. Lady will understand that it is important that we get this right. I am working with the sector, with a sub-working group—the taskforce—to identify the issues and ensure that comprehensive guidance is forthcoming. That commitment to students on Christmas remains. Around 9,000 students currently have covid. This is the data that has been sent to us by universities. It is the cumulative number of cases over the past seven days and is based on a student population of about 2 million. Public Health England informs us that 68 universities have outbreaks. We will go back to those universities to ascertain that data and, as of next week, working with the Office for Students, there will be a new data regime, which will be much more transparent.