Labour shadow universities minister Emma Hardy has written to the government calling on it to “guarantee that no university will be allowed to go bankrupt” because of the coronavirus crisis.
Labour has asked government ministers to underwrite higher education funding during the crisis, echoing a request from Universities UK (UUK) for financial support for the sector.
Ms Hardy also today repeated concerns raised by the NUS about the impact the shutdown was having on students, and urged the government to consider the NUS’s proposal for a Student Hardship Fund for those young people most affected.
In a statement released alongside her letter to universities minister Michelle Donelan, Ms Hardy said: “The coronavirus pandemic has exposed the failures and weaknesses within the government’s higher education policy.
“Our universities are not just businesses and should not be treated as such. Our higher education institutes provide value to our country every day, supplying final year medical students to fight on the frontline of our NHS, creating PPE, and providing accommodation for key workers.”
University Business has contacted the Department for Education for a response from Michelle Donelan.
Failure to provide timely and comprehensive support to our universities in the face of this crisis will create ‘cold spots’ in the country for access to higher education
– Emma Hardy, shadow universities minister
University funding during coronavirus crisis
Ms Hardy and Ms Donelan had a virtual meeting on Tuesday 21 April in which the shadow minister told her opposite number that she feared “failure to provide timely and comprehensive support to our universities in the face of this crisis will create ‘cold spots’ in the country for access to higher education”.
Universities in socio-economically disadvantaged regions of the country were most at risk, Ms Hardy wrote today, which means any impact to higher education would be felt hardest by the poorest in society.
“If these institutions were to disappear, the damaging consequences would extend beyond the classroom and impact locally and nationally,” Ms Hardy continued, adding that institutional survival is vital to “the recovery and future prosperity of our country”.
Ms Donelan confirmed in the meeting that she was considering UUK’s request for financial assistance, which would come in the form of increased quality-related research (QR) funding and a ‘transformation fund’ to help higher education providers (HEPs) “reshape” in the next three years.
Ms Hardy, however, urged the universities minister to “provide a clear message that the security and certainty our universities are desperately looking for will be available”. She also urged the Department for Education (DfE) to work with the Foreign and Commonwealth office to promote UK universities aboard and address concerns “held by some countries on the validity of ‘online degrees’”. The DfE should also seek “increased clarity” from the Home Office on the future of student visas, Ms Hardy added.
On students, Ms Hardy welcomed Ms Donelan’s comments on tuition fees – the universities minister reiterated in the meeting that students should not be expected to pay tuition fees again if they need to retake courses that were disrupted by the shutdown. But the shadow minister did question who would pick up the tab for any top-up tuition.
The two frontbenchers agreed that the sector must support SEND students’ access remote learning and Ms Hardy expressed a desire in her letter to “work together” with her counterpart to ensure BAME students and those from disadvantaged backgrounds continue to access higher education at the levels seen in years prior to the coronavirus crisis.
The Labour MP warned that entry rates for disadvantaged students could drop in 2020/21 as a result of the impact of “teacher assessment, an unequal home-schooling experiences and ‘digital poverty’”.
She concluded her letter: “I am keen to know what actions you are taking to ensure that the already disadvantaged are not further disadvantaged. I know this is an area where we can work together – and the sector is committed to addressing these issues too.
“We both share concerns about the potential impact the crisis could have on students’ (and staff’s) mental health and wellbeing and that university student support services will be stretched, so I would welcome clarity on what additional support the government can provide.”
Student Hardship Fund
Ms Hardy, who was appointed to the role of shadow university brief in January 2020, said she agreed with the concerns raised by the NUS about the impact of the coronavirus crisis on deprived students.
In a statement released this morning (Wednesday 22 April), the Hull MP said: “Labour wholeheartedly supports the NUS’s call for a student hardship fund and the option to retake their studies.
“There needs to be a safety net. The government needs to provide extra financial support, more mental health support, and any requirements that arise with SEND.”
The NUS announced calls for a student hardship fund today, after a survey of 10,000 students in April revealed that 33% are “at critical risk of being unable to access their education”.
The union’s Coronavirus and Students Survey found that university students also feared their future job prospects had been imperilled by the crisis.
Up to 85% may need additional financial support, 74% are worried about the risk to their final qualifications and 81% are worried about their future job prospects, the NUS added. The union said students should have the option to retake or be reimbursed for the academic year.
Under the Student Hardship Fund, the NUS want the government to pledge £60 million for learners in HE and FE to cover reskilling and training.
Announcing the Student Hardship Fund campaign, NUS president Zamzam Ibrahim: “The impact of this disruption will not be felt equally, with those on placements and disabled students feeling the impact particularly severely.”
“Students must not be forgotten. A Student Safety Net will demonstrate that this government cares about the students of today and recognises the role of all students in our future,” Ms Ibrahim added.
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