Universities are braced for a new wave of coronavirus in the absence of a credible action plan
Government must establish reliable mass testing, ensure all students can learn remotely, and protect the financial future of Britain’s universities
In a matter of weeks, more than two million students will take up their place at university. Many will travel the length of the country to do so, while local students will begin a daily commute between their home and place of study. This happens every year, and the Government will have known the challenges it presented months in advance, yet it has repeatedly failed to create a credible plan to allow staff and students to return to university safely.
Against a backdrop of rising cases, publishing guidance that simply reflects what many universities have already done is not sufficient to address the scale of the challenge that our universities face. Concrete action is needed, and Sage has already warned that the movement and mixing of students makes a significant outbreak of coronavirus highly likely. The Government’s response is simply not adequate to the scale of the challenge.
Anyone who is serious about supporting students to return to university safely would have a plan for getting a grip on testing, and to ensure that every student who needs to learn remotely has the resources to do so. In the Government’s guidance these issues were notable only by their absence, with no plan to get these essential measures in place.
Labour has called for every member of the university community – students, staff and those outside the university – to be able to access a test whenever they need one, and for the Government to urgently explore the mass testing of students across the country. But the Government’s incompetence has created chaos in the testing system, and there is no sign that it will get a grip by the time students return.
The Government has not yet appreciated the impact it will have if people feel that students are bringing the virus to their community. Mass testing of students is as much about reassuring communities and keeping them safe as it is about protecting the student population. But because of this Government’s chronic incompetence, none of them will be getting the tests they need.
We must do everything we can to control the spread of the virus, but we must also ensure that any young people who need to self-isolate are able to do so without facing unfair costs or barriers to learning.
The Office for Students has found that the majority of students could be negatively affected by a lack of digital access, and there is a serious risk that the most disadvantaged students could be locked out of their education altogether. This simply cannot be justified, yet once again it is only this Government that has not realised the scale of the challenge faced by students and universities in the months ahead. Labour understands the challenges student face, and has called for every student to have access to remote learning if they need it, but the Government has failed to act.
Britain’s world-class universities have long been about more than just the education they provide. The university experience has been built on the promise of a life away from home, making new friends and enjoying new experiences. But this year, freshers are entering uncharted territory and we have no idea what the reality of their experience will be. A government that was serious about supporting them would have had a credible plan in place months ago.
But the reality is that for months this Government has buried its head in the sand instead of tackling the challenges facing universities. The testing system is in complete disarray, guidance has come far too late, and the voices of staff and students have been shut out at every turn.
It is time for the Government to get a grip on testing, ensure every student can learn remotely, and protect the financial sustainability of our universities. Anything less will be an unacceptable dereliction of the duty to a generation of young people.
Emma Hardy is Labour MP for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle, and shadow minister for HE/FE, Apprenticeships and Skills