The government will make plans to ensure “every student” can return home to their families this Christmas, the education secretary Gavin Williamson has said today, as he vowed that in-person teaching at universities will continue this term where possible.
In a statement to the House of Commons earlier today, Mr Williamson said: “We are going to work with universities to make sure that all students are supported to return home safely and spend Christmas with their loved ones if they choose to do so.
“In this context, it’s essential we put in place measures to ensure this can happen while minimising the risk of transmission. Where there are specific circumstances that warrant it, there may be a requirement for some students to self-isolate at the end of term, and we will be working with a sector to ensure this will be possible, including ending in-person learning early if that is deemed to be necessary. My department will publish this guidance shortly, so every student will be able to spend Christmas with their family.”
In response, Labour backbencher Yvette Cooper asked Mr Williamson if all students would be forced to self-isolate for two weeks at the end of this academic term. Mr Williamson said this option would be necessary only “if there are specific cases and specific local circumstances”, adding “we envisage that to be a very small number of universities”.
The education secretary praised universities and their staff and student who “have followed the guidance in a responsible way, putting themselves, their friends and the local community in a safe place and out of harm’s way”.
He rejected Labour’s call yesterday to consider moving all learning online. “What I do not believe is that we should look to inflict stricter measures on students or expect higher standards of students behaviour from them than we would from any other section of society: there must be parity,” he said. “We will never be in a position where we can eliminate all risk. But we will not condemn a generation of young people by asking them to put their lives on hold for months or years ahead. We believe that universities are very well prepared to handle any outbreaks as they arise.”
Why did it take the Secretary of State and the Health Secretary until last Wednesday to write to local directors of public health about the return of university students?
– Kate Green, Labour
On testing, the education secretary said the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) “continues to make more testing available and the vast majority of people can get a test locally”.
But in a later response to a question from Labour’s Yasmin Qureshi on the reported issues with testing availability in England, Mr Williamson appeared to suggest progress towards ensuring students could access testing near to their residence was ongoing.
“We continue to work with the DHSC and Test and Trace to continue to expand the footprint of testing facilities, that’s going to be increased to 500, making sure that all universities are in place for walking distance of the testing centre, and many universities will be making available some of their facilities for testing centres to be placed in the university.”
In a comment on Sunday, Prof David Green CBE, the vice-chancellor of the University of Worcester, admitted that “rapid, reliable” coronavirus testing is “essential” for universities to operate safely during the pandemic.
Shadow education secretary Kate Green said the government had let down staff, who had worked hard over the summer to prepare for the new term, and students, “many [of whom] are isolated in cramped accommodation” because of lockdowns in halls of residence.
Ms Green also questioned Mr Williamson’s role in preparing for the return of students, asking: “Why did it take the Secretary of State and the Health Secretary until last Wednesday to write to local directors of public health about the return of university students?” Mr Williamson provided no direct response.
The education secretary needs to tell universities to halt in-person teaching, stop more students moving onto campus and issue clear guidance to move as much work as possible online, in line with other workplaces
– Jo Grady, UCU
Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union, described Mr Williamson’s claim universities were “well-prepared” as “an insult to staff, students and their parents”.
Said Dr Grady: “The education secretary needs to tell universities to halt in-person teaching, stop more students moving onto campus and issue clear guidance to move as much work as possible online, in line with other workplaces. He also needs to guarantee funding for universities to safeguard institutions’ finances and protect jobs. The government should have made that unambiguous financial commitment at the start of the pandemic to allow universities to work together.
“Instead of forcing universities to compete for students and talk up a student experience that was never likely to be delivered, the government should have provided the financial security to allow institutions to properly prepare for this academic year. If universities had been able to spend the summer studying the science, working collaboratively on a consensus about how and when to restart, they could have been much better prepared for this inevitable crisis. The education secretary saying he thinks they are well prepared sadly does not make it true.”
Mr Williamson shrugged off several questions about tuition fee refunds from Conservative and Democratic Unionist Party MPs, but in response to a question from Tory backbencher Laura Trott about vice-chancellors’ pay, Mr Williamson said: “We have had an issue of excessive vice-chancellor pay and bonuses for quite a long time. I’ll be asking the Office for Students to look at this and give a very strong and clear steer on this matter to ensure that there aren’t bonuses going out as a result of this crisis.”