Government must lay out a plan for students and end a year of neglect
Alongside their students, universities and their staff need to know whether or not they are expected to resume in-person teaching this academic year, with time to prepare.
When the Prime Minister took to the podium in his expensive new press briefing room on Easter Monday, there was an expectation that he would be mapping out the next steps of easing lockdown for everyone. It was, after all, the advertised purpose of his address to the nation. One group though was overlooked, and not for the first time.
While he confirmed that gyms, self-catering holiday accommodation, spas, and other ‘in person’ services could reopen from 12 April, there was no mention of the promised ‘review’ of student return to campus and face-to-face teaching. Being ignored again will only add to the sense of grievance from students who feel that they have been well down the list of priorities since the start of the pandemic.
It was the feeling of being forgotten that came through most forcefully in the hundreds of testimonies submitted to the APPG for Students inquiry on the impact of Covid-19 that we conducted in January, as students reflected the disruption to learning and the unfairness of paying rents for properties they were forbidden to use.
Here we are again, with just weeks of the academic year left. There was no information for students on what those not studying practical subjects can expect next, nor even an explanation of why the decision was taken to exclude higher education from step 2 of the ‘roadmap’.
Poor communication and lack of information from the government has undermined student goodwill
While students and universities understand the need to balance measures that suppress the virus as society and the economy reopen, they cannot understand why no information has been released about their route ahead. After a year of being neglected, students’ patience is wearing thin.
Our APPG inquiry heard from those who had missed out on learning experiences that could not be provide remotely, lost the part-time jobs on which they depended to fund themselves, and had to pay for accommodation that they’re not permitted to use. We recommended substantially increased hardship support, funding for lost learning opportunities, and extensions to postgraduate studentships where necessary.
The government’s response fell well short, with funding equivalent to just £36 per student in England, but we were told that too would be looked at again. Last Monday would have been a good moment to address that issue and offer students something closer to the support available in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but they were overlooked again.
Alongside their students, universities and their staff, who have done their best to shift entire courses online, need to know whether or not they are expected to resume in-person teaching this academic year, with time to prepare.
Poor communication and lack of information from the government has undermined student goodwill. As with the last-minute information provided to schools, the government have proved themselves unable or unwilling to understand the way education institutions work.
Government must put this right and set out its proposal for students’ return, alongside the criteria on which it is based. While ‘data not dates’ must lead our approach, there is no reason that the data requirements for students return cannot be publicised so higher education can plan for the rest of the academic year.
Since the Universities Minister’s open letter to students on 22nd February, with its promise to ‘review’ outstanding students’ return during the Easter holidays, there’s been radio silence from government. With no clarity on return, alongside the imminent expiry of hardship funding that the Minister promised was for ‘three months only’, it is vital that government make a new plan – and publish it now.
Paul Blomfield is the Labour MP for Sheffield Central and chair of the APPG for Students.