The hon. 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 wellbeing 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.
We agree that students are being hit by the pandemic. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group for students, I spent January with Members from both sides of the House, including two of the Minister’s Conservative predecessors, taking evidence from students, universities and landlords. We reported to Government saying that they should substantially increase hardship support; at least double the student premium funding of £256 million, which was intended for other purposes; enable full rent refunds for unused accommodation; and address lost education. The Government have recognised the problems, but they have failed on the solutions.
The Minister will know that, for many students, the maintenance loan does not even cover rent. They fund their studies from part-time work in hospitality and retail jobs, which have disappeared through the pandemic. The new hardship fund equates to around £26 per student in England, or the wages for half a shift in a bar job, but Wales and Scotland have provided hardship funding of around £300 and £80 per student. Does the Minister not accept that students across the country deserve the same level of support?
Many students have contracted for accommodation that they have been told not to use. The Minister has congratulated universities and providers that have offered rent rebates, but the amounts vary, and many students have received nothing. Does she accept the inequity, particularly between students in university accommodation and students in the private rented sector? What will she do beyond simply encouraging providers to do better?
The Minister’s statement is silent on learning loss. Universities and their staff have worked hard to offer the very best education, but it cannot match normal learning. For some students, progression or professional qualification will be damaged. We were told of lost teaching, lost access to labs and specialist facilities, lost field trips and more, so will she commit to discussing a learning remediation fund with the Chancellor? If not, what steps will she take to ensure that today’s students are not held back? Finally, will she join us in asking UK Research and Innovation to extend research studentships where needed? Will she also provide support for postgraduate research students, who are funded differently?
Students have had their education disrupted, they will enter a challenging jobs market, and they will be paying the cost of the pandemic for longer than the rest of us. They deserve better.
As I said in my statement, I agree with the hon. Gentleman that this has been a really difficult and challenging time for students. I commend them for the resilience they have shown, and I welcome the APPG’s report.
The package we announced yesterday will help thousands of students, with money going directly into the pockets of those who most need it because of the impact of the pandemic. This is £70 million for three months alone, on top of the £256 million and the additional support that universities have been giving. Yes, we do continue to urge all accommodation providers to give refunds to students, and more are doing so every day.
On catching up, my main priority is to ensure that all graduates can graduate on time with a world-class degree that can unlock their future. Of course, we will continue to monitor the situation and ensure that students are not left in hardship as a result of the pandemic. This Government’s priority remains education, and we made it so that higher education students do not have to put their academic journey or their life on hold.
I thank the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) for his urgent question, and I look forward to meeting him. I welcome what the Minister has said and her action to protect students. Will she wipe away bureaucracy so that students who are not getting proper quality blended learning can make representations to their university and to the Office for Students, and can be compensated if it is found that their £9,000-plus loan is not providing value for money? Will she ensure that she supports part-time distance learners with maintenance support? Will she also take the opportunity to rocket-boost degree apprenticeships to provide a ladder of opportunity for the disadvantaged, meet our skills needs and help employability at this tough time in the jobs market?
As always, my right hon. Friend the Chair of the Education Committee remains committed to social mobility and to ensuring that no student slips down the ladder of opportunity—a passion that I share with him. I can reassure him that the Government are committed to reducing bureaucracy in our higher education sector, as well as to making our further and higher education systems much more flexible and boosting the number of degree apprenticeships.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) for raising this important issue. The Minister mentioned the £50 million that she announced yesterday but can she guarantee that it is entirely new money and not recycled from a previous cut to student support? Will she confirm that it amounts to around £26 for each student studying in England, and that in Wales the Labour Government have provided an additional £300 per student? Why does she think that students in England need less support than those elsewhere in the UK?
Students face challenges that the Government’s response has simply not begun to address. Many universities have done the right thing to support students with their accommodation costs, but can the Minister tell us what discussions she has had with private landlords about providing more support for students? Will she also give details of the support in place for postgraduate students?
With the majority of students learning remotely, digital access is more important than ever, but we know that many students lack such access. Can the Minister tell us how many students cannot access remote learning and what her Department is doing about that? What is she doing to make sure that all universities are making reasonable adjustments to ensure that disabled students can continue their studies?
Finally, is the Minister confident that students who are struggling with their mental health can fully access all the support and services that they need? Yesterday, I met students who feel simply forgotten by the Government. Ministers’ incompetent response to the pandemic has robbed them of their university experience. They are isolated at home without support, while paying for accommodation that they are forbidden to use, and seeing their future placements, jobs and opportunities disappear. It is utterly devastating and utterly unjust, and the Minister must make it her priority to put that right.
I can indeed confirm that this is new money. It is not right to break it down per student, because it is dedicated to those students who are most in need. The difference from the funding in Wales and Scotland is that this funding is for until the end of the financial year—in effect, just for the next three months.
This Government are concerned about digital poverty, and the Secretary of State for Education commissioned a review by the Office for Students, which is shortly to report—this month, I believe. Mental health is a priority of mine, and it is why we worked with the OfS to set up Student Space. It is why at every single stage I have reiterated the importance of mental health and wellbeing provision, and communication with university students, because this is a difficult and challenging time. Unlike the hon. Lady, who told her party activists to use the crisis a political opportunity, our priority is to ensure that the opportunities of our young people are safeguarded and that students are not left in hardship because of the pandemic.
I welcome the opportunity to take part in the urgent question. Many of my constituents went off to university last year eager and in anticipation of being able to learn at world-class universities. It is welcome to hear that they have been awarded rent rebates where possible, but many of them now feel short-changed. Does the Minister agree that more pressure must be put on those universities that are failing to meet the standards of educational requirement for those students, so that value for money for all students can be delivered?
I agree with my hon. Friend. We have made it very clear to universities that the quality, quantity and accessibility of tuition need to be maintained. I commend the work that has been done by lecturers and university support staff to achieve that goal. The Office for Students is monitoring this and I recently wrote to it to make sure that it continues to do so.
An NUS survey has found that two thirds of students are worried about rent payments. To be clear, the £50 million that the Government have announced will not even cover a month of rent for those currently in arrears. Meanwhile, the Scottish Government have set aside six times more per student, a far more substantial £30 million for rent and hardship support. Despite that, Tories at Holyrood have continued to demand rent rebates for students. Does the Minister agree with her colleagues at Holyrood and, if so, what additional funding will she make available for those rent rebates? Students in Scotland can also give early notice on fixed-term tenancies. Will the Government introduce similar measures for students in England?
Scottish Tories have now adopted a policy of free tuition. Having seen the financial stress suffered by students throughout this pandemic, does the Minister agree that it is time for this Tory Government to adopt the policy of their Scotland branch and scrap fees for university tuition?
The hon. Member’s suggestion of scrapping fees would not put money into the pockets of students today. It would not help them with the hardship that they are facing as a result of the pandemic. Instead, that is exactly what we have done, with £70 million spread over just three months. We are also urging all accommodation providers to refund students for this period of time, so, no, we will not be adhering to her request.
Does my hon. Friend agree that in these difficult times it is the responsibility of every university to do its best for its students? Does she also agree that, by providing campus access where appropriate, 500 new laptops, hot food deliveries to many residential students, 1,000 free bicycles for students so that they can avoid public transport and keep fit, and by operating a no-academic detriment policy and free post-graduation practicals for missed classes, the University of Bolton is setting the standard?
I thank my hon. Friend for again highlighting to me the fantastic work that the University of Bolton is doing. Like many of our world-class universities, it has a reputation for supporting students not just with their education, but with their wellbeing. I thank all the staff at the University of Bolton for the work that they continue to do.
The Minister announced support of £50 million, but the National Union of Students estimates that a month of rent arrears alone could account for £60 million. That does not allow for loss of employment, the cost of accessing remote education, or even just buying food. So what consultation did the Government carry out with students and representative bodies to ensure that the size and scope of this support will actually meet their needs?
This hardship fund is on top of the £256 million that we unlocked for universities and higher education providers to utilise for this academic year, and it will help those most in need. It does not provide a blanket rent rebate. But I regularly meet students across England and from different bodies to ensure that we are giving them the support that they need.
Many of the halls of residence of Southampton University fall within my constituency. The students there deserve and expect a quantity and quality of education that is commensurate with what they would be receiving if they had online classes. Can my hon. Friend confirm what pressure she is bringing to bear on all universities to make sure that our students are receiving the education for which they are paying?
I agree with my right hon. Friend because online does not have to mean inferior, which is exactly why universities have invested a great deal of time and money to produce innovative and dynamic tuition. We are clear that every student deserves to receive quality, quantity and accessibility in terms of their tuition and this is being actively monitored by the Office for Students.
What is the Minister doing to support the many thousands of students who rely on part-time work to help them through their university life, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds? According to the NUS survey, 9% of young people are relying on foodbanks. Although the £50 million is welcome, it is not enough. Will the Minister today commit to substantially increasing that amount so that our students can survive and thrive during this pandemic?
I agree that we want every student to thrive throughout this pandemic, and past it. As I have said, this amount is on top of the £256 million for this academic year. We are actively monitoring the impact of this money, which only goes up to April, so that we can ensure that the best support is there for all students.
I welcome the funding package that the Minister unveiled yesterday. Will she confirm that she remains confident that teaching and learning environments are covid-secure for those students who do return to university? Also, in this time of heightened risk of transmission, surely it is right to reduce the numbers of people who travel to and from campus.
My right hon. Friend touches on a really important point. We have only asked a small cohort of students to go back to university, not because face-to-face teaching is unsafe—in fact, public health information tells us that that is not the case at all—but because we are concerned about mass movement and community transmission in general. In addition, we are testing students and staff on a weekly basis, and in most universities twice a week.
I declare for the record that there are three people living in my house at the moment who should be away at university right now; one of them is in private accommodation, paying £150 a week for a property that they have not lived in for two months, and they have no idea when they may be able to return to it. What would the Minister tell them about why they should continue to pay rent for a property that they have no opportunity to use at the moment?
Obviously it is a really difficult time for the hon. Member’s child; I feel exceptionally sorry for them. It is one of the awful ramifications of the pandemic that they are not able to access face-to-face teaching. This Government are committed to prioritising education and getting them back as quickly as possible, in line with the road map that the Prime Minister announced last week. We have this hardship funding available for those who are most in need and those who need help. I also urge the hon. Member’s loved one to contact their accommodation provider to see what flexibility it could provide.
Many students in my North Devon constituency are facing additional costs for alternative accommodation, loss of employment or to access their university teaching online. Does my hon. Friend agree that the extra £70 million of funding that has been made available will deliver real, tangible help for students who are struggling financially as a result of the pandemic?
Absolutely; I completely agree. That is exactly why we unlocked £256 million for this academic year, why we gave £20 million in December and why we have announced £50 million now. This will put money into the pockets of the students who are most in need as a result of the pandemic.
My constituents who are students have faced significant challenges with private landlords, digital access and learning generally. That is why my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) is absolutely right to ask this urgent question—thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting it—and why my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) is right to say that students feel utterly forgotten. Will the Minister tell us what steps she is taking to actually listen to the experiences of students through this pandemic?
It is vital that we listen to the experiences of students. That is why I regularly meet the NUS, and student unions in universities up and down the country. I also regularly meet the Office for Students student panel, and engage with students on a range of student media and chat forums. I will continue to do so because students need to be at the heart of our policy making and decision making, and it is their futures that we need to safeguard.
I thank my hon. Friend for her statement and I welcome the £70 million to alleviate student hardship. I have been contacted by several students in Hertford and Stortford about the financial struggles they face. Can my hon. Friend reaffirm what she has previously said—that universities should treat students with the care and consideration they deserve during this difficult time? What does she advise students to do if that should not seem to be the case?
My hon. Friend is spot on: universities do have a duty of care, and it is important that they are communicating with and looking after the wellbeing of students during this challenging time. Useful information and best practice have been circulated by Universities UK and the Office for Students. If a student really does have a concern, they should raise it directly with their university, go through the complaints process and then potentially escalate it to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator.
Here in South Yorkshire, our two world-leading universities are doing everything they can to support students through the crisis. But writing in The Yorkshire Post today, the vice-chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University rightly calls for a “massive increase” in the hardship payment to up to £200 million to help those students who are struggling. What guarantees can the Minister give that further help for these disadvantaged students is on the way?
As I have said many times today, this support is available until April. We are actively monitoring the impact on students, to ensure that every student who needs the help can get it and that they have that money in their pockets, so that they do not face challenges as the pandemic progresses.
The Government set the maximum amount that universities can charge for tuition fees during normal times. Is it not therefore the responsibility of Government to set the maximum amount that universities can charge during this covid-19 period, when students are not getting the education or the experience they have paid for because of Government restrictions?
We will continue to monitor the situation. However, it is important to note that reducing tuition fees would not put money into students’ pockets here and now, and 50% of students do not pay back their loaned amount. What is important is ensuring that students get the quantity, the quality and the accessibility of tuition in these really difficult and challenging times.[Official Report, 2 March 2021, Vol. 690, c. 2MC.]
A lot of students in Selly Oak live in private houses in multiple occupation, as well as purpose-built accommodation. The Guild of Students is calling for full rent rebates until the Government deem it safe to return to university and a no-penalty release from existing tenancy contracts. Does the Minister agree?
The Prime Minister announced a road map for unlocking society and our education the other week, including getting students back from 8 March if the health information allows it; that is our priority. We urge those students who are suffering financially because they are in private accommodation and unable to access refunds to contact their university, so that they can apply for the hardship funding that we have given.
I welcome the Government’s commitment of £70 million to support students impacted by this lockdown. Does my hon. Friend agree that, as the vaccine is rolled out and we are able to ease restrictions, nothing is more important than getting our undergraduates back to their universities?
We made education a priority, which includes higher education, so that students do not have to put their academic journeys or their lives on hold, and we kept a proportion of face-to-face learning going for as long as we could. I agree with my hon. Friend: I want university students back as soon as it is safe to do so, and we have a road map laid out by the Prime Minister last week to enable us to do that.
I declare an interest, as vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary university group. Students have had a dreadful time throughout this pandemic, and they have had it from all sides. On accommodation in particular, I commend the work of the Stirling students’ union and Stirling University. Stirling University has taken the financial hit from students for empty university accommodation. What discussions has the Minister had with universities and the devolved Administrations to provide additional funding to universities to recognise the financial hit that they have taken so that students do not need to?
Education is of course devolved, but I meet on a weekly basis with my counterpart in Scotland, Minister Lochhead. We discuss the issue of accommodation almost every week, and the other pressures that students are facing, in order to have a joined-up and co-ordinated approach that is really getting to the heart of the problems that universities and students are facing.
The £70 million support fund for students facing financial difficulties is very welcome, and I congratulate Ministers on once again stepping in to protect those most in need. However, a number of my Orpington constituents have told me how their studies have been drastically impacted by the pandemic. Will my hon. Friend update the House on what discussions have been held with universities about full or partial refunds for tuition and accommodation fees in this academic year?
I agree with my hon. Friend: this is a really difficult and challenging time for students, and my heart goes out to all of them. We as a Government set the maximum tuition fee level, not the minimum, and it is up to universities to decide what to charge. Every single one of them has continued to charge the maximum during this pandemic, and in return we have said that we expect the quantity, quality and accessibility of provision to be there. If a student feels that it is not, there is a process whereby they can make a formal complaint to their university, and if the issue is still not resolved, they can take it to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator, which can potentially lead to a full or partial refund.
I echo the excellent point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green): it is absolutely vital that no student is disadvantaged if they choose to study outside of their home country. Yet the UK Government’s recent £50 million extension designed to support students will actually leave Welsh students studying in England significantly worse off than English students studying in Wales. As a Member representing an area in Wales, I have concerns both for students at the local University of South Wales campus here in Pontypridd and constituents who are now studying across the UK. Will the Minister confirm exactly what discussions she has had with the Welsh Government about supporting Welsh students who are studying in England?
Just to clarify, the hardship funding, at every stage, is applicable to international students, students from Wales who study here in England, and indeed Scottish students studying in England. I am happy to clarify that for all the hon. Lady’s constituents who may be studying at an English university.
I have been seeking to support a number of students in my constituency who are doing as they have been asked and staying at home but find themselves locked into tenancy agreements and paying rent on accommodation they cannot use. While it is welcome that some universities and accommodation providers are providing partial rebates to students, too many still are not. Will the Minister join me in urging all those accommodation providers to show some flexibility and provide a partial rent rebate wherever possible?
Absolutely; I totally agree with my hon. Friend. This is a difficult time for students, and we do urge all providers of university accommodation to give a partial refund for this period in which students cannot all access their accommodation. A few that have done this so far include Warwick, Nottingham, Sheffield, LSE and Exeter—the list goes on—but we want others to contribute too.
I was delighted to hear that the Minister has regular discussions with the devolved Education Ministers, because although it is devolved, higher education is an area where there is an interchange of students from different parts of the UK. Can she assure me that in these discussions they will look at every aspect of student life that has been detrimentally impacted by the pandemic, including mental health, finances, and the disruption to their academic results?
I welcome the extra £50 million of funding announced yesterday for universities, which will help thousands of students facing financial difficulties because of coronavirus. Can the Minister confirm that this funding will be focused on support for the most disadvantaged students, including many from High Peak, who have been badly hit by the pandemic?
I can, indeed. I urge all students, including those who originate from High Peak, who have been disadvantaged by the pandemic and find themselves in hardship, to approach their university and apply for this fund, which is exactly designed to target those who have found themselves in hardship and to put money in their pockets and assist them at this difficult time.
The Minister will know of the magnificent efforts of student doctors, nurses and many other healthcare students who are working in NHS covid wards as part of their studies. I am incredibly proud of the students from the University of Hull who have stepped up in this pandemic, often moving to the frontline early and putting themselves at risk. Along with the president of Hull University Students’ Union, Phoebe Bastiani, I have written to the Government asking for a reduction in healthcare students’ debt to recognise their contribution to the national effort against covid-19. Will the Minister look again at this proposal?
I could not agree more regarding the fantastic contribution that our nursing and medical students have made throughout this pandemic. We owe them so much. I work closely with the Department of Health and Social Care on this very topic. These students are eligible for payment during their placement and access to the NHS pension, and the placement also contributes towards their degree. There are no current plans by the Government to reimburse the fees for these students.
Can I ask the Minister to say a few more words about the quality of teaching that is being provided? She said in her earlier answers that the Office for Students was monitoring the quality of that education carefully. I have looked at its website, but what it does not seem to do is publish any information on what it is finding about the quality of that education. Can she update the House, based on her conversations with the Office for Students, about her assessment of the extent to which universities are maintaining the quality of the education they are delivering?
University lecturers and university support staff have worked really hard to maintain the quality of provision, but I am under no illusions about the fact that some students feel they are not getting that quality or that quantity, and that is exactly why we have a process in place. That includes monitoring by the Office for Students, and the fact that students or parents—or teachers, in fact—can report concerns that they have to the Office for Students to review them. I will speak to the Office for Students about the transparency and approach of its findings.
Students feel abandoned by this Government. They have had a terrible experience during the pandemic not only with disrupted studies, but with many facing serious hardship. The new hardship funds are welcome, but they are nowhere near enough, particularly if the Minister expects them to be used if students have trouble paying rents in the private sector too. I hope she is hearing that loudly and clearly from all parts of this House. The hardship funds need to be increased by far more. Applying the Welsh model would suggest a figure of about £700 million for England. Can she explain why students in England are getting a deal that is so much worse than that of their colleagues in Wales?
The funding we have announced is for three months only—that is, £70 million spread over three months. It is my understanding that it is not the same case in Wales. That is in addition to the £256 million that we unlocked, and also on top of that is the money that universities themselves have allocated.
I also welcome the additional funds that were announced yesterday, which will undoubtedly go a long way to helping those in the greatest financial need. But I have heard from many of my constituents who are students at institutions across the country about their continuing to be burdened with the high cost of accommodation, while it is the state that demands they stay at their parental home. Does my hon. Friend agree with me that this is fundamentally a question of fairness? What more can she do to fix that imbalance both for students and for institutions and landlords, as this is not their fault either?
We continue to monitor the situation to see how long this will last and the impact the money we have allocated is having on students. Our priority was to put money into the pockets of those most in need and those who have been impacted the most by this pandemic, but I am more than happy to continue talking to my hon. Friend and any other colleague on this very subject.
I think we should start with a word of congratulations to all the students for putting up with what has been a very challenging situation and encourage them by reminding them that they will get through this, and that they will be tomorrow’s generation of leaders in our nation. With students paying rent and rates for digs not being used, being charged full fees for courses that are taught online, and having unpaid loans, mounting debt, and fear for their futures, does the Minister agree that they must not be economically punished as a result of this awful pandemic? We must give them hope, give them help and make sure that this debt is cancelled.
We continue to monitor the situation, but removing the debt would not help students here and now, who we know are facing challenges as a result of this pandemic. That needs to be our priority, so that they can continue to study. They can then qualify in those subjects and go on to the rest of their lives. As I have said to other colleagues, I am more than happy to talk to the hon. Member about this subject.
I very much welcome this important support package to help our students in these difficult times. As someone who has worked in higher education for many years, both teaching and supporting students, I know first-hand the stresses and strains our students face, and not least the mental health issues many experience. That has been brought into sharp relief in the pandemic. Can my hon. Friend reassure students and their families that institutions are providing suitable mental health and pastoral support to students both onsite and remotely, and that the Government are working to help institutions to do that?
This is something I am particularly passionate about. At every stage, I have reiterated to institutions the importance of mental health and wellbeing provision, and moving that online. Equally, I know that higher education institutions are passionate about providing that level of support. We have worked with the Office for Students to launch Student Space, which is a £3 million project designed specifically to fill in some of the gaps that may have been exposed during the pandemic. I have established a higher education working group to ensure that students are aware of the support available and to boost it.
The Government’s support package is welcome, but the Minister will be aware that many stakeholders do not think it goes far enough. There is a particular issue about students being required to pay full fees for courses that are nowhere near the quality and content of the course experience they would get if they were actually attending university. The Minister has said that individual students can take their concerns to the Office for Students, but this is a systemic problem. Rather than relying on individual students taking up their concerns, why do the Government not take responsibility themselves for ascertaining whether students are being offered full value in particular courses and universities, and take steps to make sure that students get a rebate?
I have seen many examples of innovative and dynamic tuition throughout this period, but we have been clear that we expect quality, quantity and accessibility. I know that some will feel they have not got that, and that is why the process is designed to look at individual student cases on a case-by-case basis.
I welcome the additional money that the Government are providing today, but given that nearly all our universities charge the maximum fee every year, they all should be able to provide at least some support to ease the burden on students at this time. Part of the reason that they are not all doing so is that some of them went into the pandemic with finances that were not quite working, whether because their administration costs were too high or they were overly reliant on international student fees. Does my hon. Friend agree that when we get to the other side of the pandemic, some universities need to look at how they can be more financially resilient, so that they can all provide the support that students deserve?
Our information shows that the sector has been working hard and taking strong action to control costs, protect its cashflow and put in place contingency loan facilities to deal with the pandemic. A recent report in December by the Office for Students showed that the sector in aggregate was in fact healthy.
Newham Community Project in my constituency is supporting 1,700 destitute overseas students with weekly food parcels. Those students have paid us a great compliment by choosing Britain to provide them with education and many of them have paid £12,000 a year or more in fees; they should not now be left now without food. Who has the duty of care for those overseas students?
We know that the pandemic has had an impact on student finances, including those of international students. Let me be clear: no students, no matter their origin, should be left in hardship. That is why the £256 million, the £20 million in December and the £50 million that we announced yesterday can be used for international students. I urge any students who find themselves in hardship to go to their university and seek help.
I welcome the extra £50 million to help those most in need and the Minister’s call for accommodation providers to give rent rebates. However, when a service is not delivered as expected, the customer is entitled to a refund or credit, so is it not time that universities did the right thing and gave students a fair deal, with rebates on fees where students are not getting the quality of teaching they are paying for, and did so without students having to navigate an appeals process that was not designed for this situation?
I have been clear throughout the pandemic that consumer law has not changed, and Competition and Markets Authority statements confirm that fact and the law’s applicability to students. I have been clear that providers should review whether students have received the teaching and assessment they were promised and have regard to the guidance on their consumer protection obligations. The guidance from the CMA for students is available.
It is completely unfair that teenagers just starting out in adult life are being expected to cover the cost of rental accommodation that they cannot even use in this pandemic. Will the Minister come up with an arrangement with landlords to allow students to leave or renegotiate contracts, and introduce means-tested maintenance grants to give the covid cohort some relief from the hardships they are bearing?
We urge all accommodation providers, especially the large providers, to be as flexible as they possibly can and to have students’ best interests at heart, and we have seen the likes of Unite come forward and do that. The hardship funding we have allocated will help those who find themselves in hardship and not able to access any flexibility from their accommodation provider.
Many of the students from Blackpool who are attending university will come from some of the poorest households in the entire country and will now face various additional costs relating to accommodation, access to learning materials and the loss of earnings. What steps is my hon. Friend taking to ensure that the additional support, which is to be welcomed, is focused on those who really need it?
The money that we have allocated will go to the Office for Students and then be allocated to universities, which we believe are best placed to make those decisions. Students should go to their university to raise concerns regarding hardship. The money provided is designed to put funds into the pockets of those who most need it now, as a direct result of the pandemic.
Students are understandably incredibly anxious about how the courses they are taking will be taught and assessed and how the pandemic will have a detrimental impact not just on their academic results but, if —[Inaudible.]— have taught us anything, potentially for decades to come. Will the Government establish a covid student learning remediation fund to allow lost learning to be addressed through the provision of educational opportunities not currently available during the pandemic?
I am actively working with the higher education sector, and at a weekly taskforce meeting we discuss these very topics—how we can catch up and ensure that all students are able to graduate on time, at a world-class level, and go on to the next stage in their lives.
My hon. Friend will no doubt be aware that Milton Keynes is home to the trailblazing Open University, which has helped over 2.2 million learners achieve their learning goals through remote and virtual education since it was set up in 1969. Now that the rest of the sector is catching up with Milton Keynes, perhaps she might give me some assurances that the expectation is the same as with the Open University—that the number of teaching hours, the quality of the courses and the learning outcomes must be the same for virtual provision.
I, too, am a massive fan of the Open University and the way that it has allowed higher education in this country to be much more flexible and accessible for all. I completely agree with my hon. Friend that all universities need to adhere to our expectation of quality, quantity and accessibility, but it is important to state that university staff have been working tirelessly to deliver that through very challenging times.
Around 78% of students from Wales are worried about the financial impact of covid-19, which is sadly unsurprising given that so many have lost work, are unable to return to universities because of Government restrictions, and yet are still required to pay for private accommodation. Does the Minister anticipate that further support will be forthcoming in the Budget, and will she work closely with the Welsh Government in any discussions with the Treasury to ensure that any additional funding also benefits students in Wales?
I certainly am not responsible for the Budget, so I could not comment on that, but I do work very closely with my Welsh counterpart on issues pertaining not only to students but to the sector at large, in ensuring that we are co-ordinated on our approach.