Earlier this week on Wednesday there was a debate that took place in Parliament on the theme of Support for University Students: Covid-19 which was started by Paul Blomfield who is the Labour MP for Sheffield Central with his Urgent Question “To ask the Secretary of State for Education if he will make a statement on support for university students as a result of the pandemic.” After Paul had asked the question there was a statement by Michelle Donelan who is the MP for Chippenham and has been the Minister of State for Education (Universities) since 13th February 2020. Following her statement he then made this comment as part of his response
“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.”
There were two contributions from Sussex, one was from Andrew Griffith whose call was “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?” and then later on in the debate this question came from Caroline Lucas who understandably has a great deal of knowledge of the student challenges as she is the MP for Brighton covering the Universities of Brighton and Sussex as well as the Greater Brighton Metropolitan College. Her question was very clear and well worked out.
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?
Sadly the response was rather less appealing than what we need right now, indeed it was the repeated response from several other questions including the initial one from Paul Blomfield.
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.
There clearly needs to be some way of opposition MPs and even several of the Conservative MPs who were unhappy with the level of support to be able to persuade the English offer to get much closer to the Welsh provision for students. I have several friends whose families are dealing with student issues and so I am sure that they would love to have read a much more positive answer in the next few days. There is clearly a need for a follow up and so perhaps Michelle Donelan could be persuaded to recognise that the answer needs reviewing and a more effective response such as the release of another £500m – £600m for students. In addition to the challenge for students, there is also a challenge for Colleges and Universities and so it would also be helpful for the Government to reflect on those as well, particularly the Further Education Colleges which did not get included in this debate.