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Higher Education: Learning Lost to Covid-19

Volume 702: debated on Monday 1 November 2021

9. What steps he is taking to support (a) universities and (b) students in higher education to make up for learning experiences lost as a result of the covid-19 outbreak. (903941)

The teaching staff at our universities have done a fantastic job in delivering high-quality teaching throughout the pandemic, but I am sure everyone will agree that there is no substitute for face-to-face teaching. Last week I wrote to all providers emphasising the importance of face-to-face provision, not just in teaching but in the rich extracurricular activities that should be provided for students to ensure that they are given a fair deal.

I welcome the Minister back to her role, and I agree with her about the fantastic job that universities have done. However, the Office for National Statistics reported recently that nearly 40% of first-year students had shown symptoms of depression and anxiety this autumn, and similar numbers felt unprepared for university because of the loss of in-person learning during the pandemic. What support is the Government giving stretched universities to ensure that both new and continuing students succeed despite the difficulties that they have faced, and will the Minister take this opportunity to deny rumours that the Government are planning to add to their worries by making graduates on lower incomes pay more of their student debt, by reducing the repayment threshold?

Throughout the pandemic we have prioritised the welfare and wellbeing of students, and we will continue to do so. We will respond to the Augar report shortly. As for the transition of students to university, we have worked with universities on that. We have held a session with more than 200 schools and higher education providers, and published a guide to assist with the transition. We have invested £15 million in mental health and welfare support, and with our help £3 million has been provided for Student Space by the Office for Students. It is this Government who continue to support students.

The Minister is doing a first-rate job for students in promoting freedom of speech on campus. Does she agree, however, that it would not help students to recover from everything they have been going through and everything they have lost during the pandemic if they faced the prospect of having to pay back already excessive student loans at a lower threshold? Does she also agree that too many universities have become academically indiscriminate cash cows for overpaid university administrators?

In response to Augar, we will be reporting shortly. We want to ensure that a more sustainable student finance system exists. We want to drive up the quality of higher education provision, ensure that courses meet the skills needs of this country, maintain our world-class reputation and promote social mobility.

I welcome the new Secretary of State and his team, who are also new, with the exception of the Minister for Further and Higher Education, the right hon. Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan), although I of course welcome her as well as she returns to the Front Bench. I welcome the entire team. She has quite rightly commended university staff for the job that they have done over the past 20 months in supporting students as they shifted their entire courses online, but those same individuals are now facing severe cuts to their retirement benefits—essentially a 35% cut to their pensions and lump sums. Given the work that these staff have done over the pandemic, what action is the Minister taking to ensure that this brutal pension reduction will not go ahead?

I am deeply concerned about this issue, and that is because of the threat of strikes. Our students are now in a position to have face-to-face teaching, and I would urge every lecturer to reconsider taking strike action. Strikes have not helped the situation before, but they have impacted students who deserve a fairer deal.