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Covid-19: Financial Support for Students

Volume 690: debated on Monday 1 March 2021

What steps his Department is taking to support university students facing financial hardship as a result of the covid-19 outbreak. (912661)

What steps his Department is taking to support university students facing financial hardship as a result of the covid-19 outbreak. (912678)

We are making available an additional £70 million of student hardship funding this financial year. This money is in addition to the £256 million of assisting higher education funding that providers can draw upon in the academic year to support students in hardship.

I thank my hon. Friend for doing a Zoom call with my Kensington students and those at Imperial College. A number of students raised concerns that they were not getting value for money out of their tuition and accommodation during the pandemic. Will my hon. Friend address those concerns?

This has been a really challenging and difficult time for students. The Government expect that quality is maintained, and the Office for Students has been clear that all higher education providers must continue to comply with the registration conditions relating to quality and standards. Accommodation providers are autonomous, but the Government urge all large providers to have students’ interests at heart and provide refunds; we thank the plethora of universities that have already done so, including—but not limited to— Nottingham, Sheffield, London School of Economics, Bath and Essex, to name a few.

There is a huge issue with students being legally unable to return to accommodation that they are legally obliged to pay for. The Prime Minister has said that he will look into this. Indeed, when I questioned him about the matter on 22 February, he said:

“We will do whatever we can to support them,”

and we will,

“help them to get compensation.”—[Official Report, 22 February 2021; Vol. 689, c. 656.]

Can the Minister put some flesh on the bones about what the Prime Minister meant when he talked about compensation for students who are legally unable to return to accommodation that they have to pay for?

As I have said, this has been a difficult time for students. There are students who are having to pay twice and may be being charged by their parents. That is exactly why we announced £70 million of additional financial hardship funding on top of the £256 million. I urge any student listening to this to go to their university and get the support available to help them at this time.

The fantastic Staffordshire University is in my constituency of Stoke-on-Trent Central, and since the start of the pandemic I have received several messages from students and constituents attending the university with concerns about their financial position. Many of them were placed on furlough and have experienced reduced hours, while also being locked into private tenancy agreements throughout this academic year; they are therefore unable to benefit from the rent reductions offered by Staffordshire University to students living in on-site accommodation.

What consideration has my hon. Friend given to students in similar positions across the country? Would she consider altering the loan available to students whose household income has been affected significantly during this difficult time?

My first message to students would be to go to their university and seek hardship funding, because we have made available an additional £70 million that needs to be spent by April to support students, including international and postgraduate students. Any student who is not receiving the maximum loan but whose household income has changed by 15% may be able to get additional support. They should fill in an income circumstances form for the Student Loans Company and get the support available to them.

Many students have lost the part-time work they rely on and their financial concerns are helping to fuel their mental health crisis. The Scottish Government have given students studying in Scotland the equivalent of £78 per student; the Welsh Labour Government have given students studying in Wales the equivalent of £302 per student. The UK Government have given students studying in England the equivalent of £45 per student. Why do this Government put such a low value on the welfare of students in England?

Quite to the contrary, we put an extremely important value on the welfare of our students. That is exactly why one of our first actions in this pandemic was to allow more flexibility with the £256 million that can support student hardship, and we have recently given an additional £70 million that needs to be spent in this financial year. We are keeping all this under review, but our priority has been getting additional money into the pockets of students who may be facing financial hardship right here and right now.

The pandemic is affecting many part-time opportunities and that is having an impact on international students who are struggling to make ends meet. I think we were all disturbed to see the images of international students queuing outside a food bank in east London.

The Scottish Government have expanded hardship support to specifically include international students. The Minister has mentioned the hardship support available from her Government, but Universities UK reports that international students are not coming forward for it because they have concerns about how this might impact their visa or immigration status. Can she confirm that work has been done so that these students can come forward and it will not impact their immigration status?

Hardship funding in England has always been applicable to international students. We have worked hard to get that message out there; I recently wrote a letter specifically addressed to international students. We continue to disseminate that message. The hon. Member is quite right: it will have no implications for their visas if they choose to take that money.