This document sets out the principal parliamentary activity relating to the higher education sector in the last two weeks. It includes key written answers from Ministers on international students and quality of learning, links to updated Government guidance and the key take-home points from the Education Select Committee session on Monday 18 May 2020.
Monday 18 May 2020 – Education Committee session on the impact of COVID-19 on the Education sector
On Monday 18 May 2020, the Education Select Committee held a session on the impact of coronavirus on the higher and further education sector. The purpose of the session was to cover the implications of the shift towards remote learning, the impact of the coronavirus crisis on welfare of students and staff, and the ways in which the crisis may be disproportionately impacting vulnerable and/or disadvantaged students. The session also considered the long-term impacts of the coronavirus on the sector and how the sector is adapting to the change.
The first half of the session heard evidence from Zamzam Ibrahim, the National President of the National Union of Students, Professor Debra Humphris, the Chair of the University Alliance, and Dr Jo Grady, the General Secretary of the University and College Union.
The key points from this session were as follows:
- Zamzam Ibrahim noted that online learning is a key issue for students and staff, as staff were expected to deliver remote teaching schools overnight. Robert Halfon MP asked how many students currently do not have access to online learning. Zamzam Ibrahim responded that an NUS survey found that over 20% of students were unable to access online learning, and 33% are not getting adequate education at this time.
- Dr Jo Grady highlighted the early indicators that there will be a 230,000 drop in student numbers, which will represent a loss of £2.5billion income for universities.
- Regarding student and staff wellbeing, Zamzam Ibrahim called for a student hardship fund to help those who are facing financial difficulties and those who have caring responsibilities. Dr Jo Grady also raised concerns about maintaining staff wellbeing.
- Dr Jo Grady raised concerns about exam cancellations, and that the system for awarding A-Level grades will disproportionately impact working class, BAME and disabled students.
- Jonathan Gullis MP asked the panel’s views on the quality of online learning that is currently on offer. Zamzam Ibrahim responded by saying that not a single student is receiving the quality of education that they expected when they began their course and that many are struggling to access course materials.
- Dr Jo Grady said that Government measures do not currently deliver security for students, staff and university communities. Instead the measures push back the problem, rather than properly underwriting the sector.
- Debra Humphris, Chair of the University Alliance, found that many professional regulators of vocational qualifications are working flexibly to enable students to quality.
The second half of the session took evidence from the Office for Students (OfS). The Chair of OfS Michael Barber and the Chief Executive Nicola Dandridge gave evidence to the Committee. The key take-home points were:
- The OfS said that they are ensuring every HE provider is making reasonable adjustments and that they are about to publish guidance on students’ contractual and consumer rights. Students also have the right to complain to the Ombudsman if they feel that they have not received the quality of education that they expect.
- Chair of the OfS Michael Barber said every university has the opportunity to rethink teaching and learning going forward.
- Tom Hunt MP asked whether it would be appropriate for the Government to attach conditions to any further financial support to ensure there is public benefit for this spending. Michael Barber said it is perfectly reasonable for these conditions to be attached.
- Kim Johnson MP said that the access gap is a perennial problem for BAME and disadvantaged students and asked what monitoring the OfS is doing to ensure that disadvantaged students are not disproportionately affected in their journeys to and through higher education. Michael Barber responded by stating that access and participation is the top priority for the OfS and that they are monitoring universities’ progress towards 5 year participation goals.
- Ian Mearns MP raised a question on the OfS’ consultation on a new condition of registration. He noted that it was broad in scope and signals a change in the tolerance of competitive practises in the higher education sector. He asked how confident the OfS is that they can successfully deliver this. Nicola Dandridge said that it is unlikely to signal a move away from competition in the higher education sector. Instead, it is a way of temporarily regulating the sector to ensure it works in the interests of students and the sector throughout the coronavirus period.
The full transcript of the session can be found here.
On 19 May 2020, Michelle Donelan MP, the Minister of State for Universities, responded to a written question on what steps the Department for Education are taking to attract international students to creative and specialist universities in the UK in the next academic year.
In her response, she stated that the Government have been working closely with the sector on this issue to ensure that existing rules and regulations, for example on visas, are as flexible as possible for international students. The Government is also encouraging higher education providers to be as flexible as possible in accommodating potential applicant’s circumstances.
She also stated that the Government has committed to reviewing the International Education Strategy this autumn, which will respond to the new challenges delivered by the coronavirus crisis across all education settings.
On 15 May 2020, Baroness Berridge also responded to a written question on international students. In her response, she outlined that the Government have provided bespoke Tier 4 visa guidance for students and sponsors affected by border changes.
Both written answers on international students can be found below:
Higher Education: Foreign Students
Department for Education
19 May 2020
Neil Coyle: To ask the Secretary of State for Education, what steps his Department is taking to work with the higher education sector to attract international students to (a) creative and (b) specialist universities in the UK in the next academic year.
Michelle Donelan: The government continues to recognise the huge value, both culturally and socially as well as economically, that international students bring to higher education in the UK. We recognise that the COVID-19 outbreak will have an unparalleled impact on all elements of the global and UK economy. The higher education sector, including student recruitment, is no exception.
We have been working closely with the whole sector, including representatives of smaller and specialist higher education providers, to monitor the likely impacts of COVID-19 on international student recruitment. We understand that the COVID-19 outbreak and a possible reduction in the number of international students poses significant challenges. We stand ready to help the sector, including creative and specialist institutions, with various mitigations.
The government is working to ensure that existing rules and regulations, including visa regulations, are as flexible as possible for international students under these unprecedented circumstances. The latest visa guidance for students includes English language workarounds that will also benefit smaller and specialist higher education providers and providers of pre-sessional courses. Higher education providers are encouraged to be flexible in accommodating applicants’ circumstances where possible, including if applicants are unable to travel to the UK in time for the start of the academic year.
The government has also committed to publish a review of the International Education Strategy this autumn, which will respond to the new context and the challenges that are posed by COVID-19 across all education settings. We look forward to continuing to welcome international students in the future – they are one of the reasons why our higher education sector remains world-class.
Foreign Students: Coronavirus
Department for Education
15 May 2020
Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle: To ask Her Majesty’s Government what provision they are making to ensure international students can return to the UK to resume their studies who left the UK to return home for the duration of the lockdown, and what support they will provide to international students who are no longer in a position to return to the UK to complete their studies due to financial losses as a result of the crisis.
Baroness Berridge: The government is applying discretion under current circumstances to ensure that international students are not negatively impacted due to COVID-19. We have published bespoke Tier 4 visa guidance for students and sponsors affected by changes to UK immigration and borders due to COVID-19. This guidance includes the latest information for those who might have questions around visa expiry, switching visa category within the UK and distance learning – it also specifically confirms that sponsors do not need to withdraw sponsorship if a student is unable to attend for more than 60 days due to COVID-19 but intends to resume their studies eventually.
We are working closely with universities and are pleased to see that the sector is making every effort to enable students to continue their studies – including moving learning online either in the UK or in student’s home country – so that their teaching and assessment can proceed. Students experiencing financial hardship as a result of COVID-19 should contact their higher education provider. Many providers have hardship funds which students can apply to for assistance.
Quality of Education Provision
On 20 May 2020, Baroness Berridge also responded to a written question on maintaining good quality education provision and whether course fees should be reduced. In her answer, she stated that the Government is working with the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, professional bodies and the OfS to ensure students continue to leave university with qualifications that have practical value. She also noted that while higher education providers will still be charging fees, they should only charge full tuition fees if they are still providing good quality education.
On 22 May 2020, Michelle Donelan also responded to a written question on the quality of online education provision throughout the coronavirus crisis. In her answer, she reiterated the details provided by Baroness Berridge about quality of education.
The full written answers can be seen below:
Higher Education: Standards
Department for Education
20 May 2020
Lord Taylor of Warwick: To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of whether students returning to university in the autumn will be able to receive the same standard of education as would normally be provided, and whether course fees should be reduced.
Baroness Berridge: The government continues to work with the higher education (HE) sector to make sure that all reasonable efforts are being made to enable students to continue their studies to the best of their abilities. The HE sector is already working hard to prepare learning materials for the autumn term.
The government is working with the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, professional bodies and the Office for Students (OfS), the higher education regulator in England, to ensure students continue to leave university with qualifications that have practical value. The OfS has published guidance for registered providers about how it will approach the regulation of quality and standards during the COVID-19 outbreak. This guidance is clear that standards must be maintained: https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/publications/guidance-for-providers-about-quality-and-standards-during-coronavirus-pandemic/. Actions that providers are taking now may continue to be required in the 2020-21 academic year if there is prolonged disruption as a result of the outbreak.
Universities offering high-quality tuition online will continue to charge fees. We only expect full tuition fees to be charged if online courses are of good quality, fit for purpose and help students progress towards their qualification. If universities want to charge full fees they will have to ensure that the quality is there. The government has made it clear that if providers are unable to deliver adequate online teaching then it would be unacceptable for students to be charged for any additional terms, which would effectively mean that they were being charged twice.
Whether an individual student is entitled to a reduction of their fees will depend on specific contractual arrangements between the HE providers and the student. Fee loans are being paid directly to the university at the start of the third term.
If a student is concerned about their education or about the steps that their provider has taken to respond to the situation, they should speak to their HE provider in the first instance. The government expects student complaints and appeals processes to be operated flexibly, accessibly and sympathetically by institutions in order to resolve any concerns. Students who are not satisfied with their provider’s final response can ask the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education to consider their complaint if their institution is based in England or Wales.
Department for Education
22 May 2020
Matt Vickers: To ask the Secretary of State for Education, what steps he is taking to ensure that university students receive value for money from student fees during the covid-19 outbreak.
Michelle Donelan: The government recognises the challenges facing students and supports them in their desire to continue receiving the best possible learning experience from our higher education providers. This is a difficult and uncertain time for students, but we are working with the sector to make sure all reasonable efforts are being made to enable students to continue their studies.
The Office for Students (OfS), the regulator in England, has committed to protecting students throughout the present crisis and has produced guidance on practical ways in which students can complete their studies whilst ensuring quality and standards are upheld. This guidance is clear that standards must be maintained – further details are available here: https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/publications/guidance-for-providers-about-quality-and-standards-during-coronavirus-pandemic/. The government is also working closely with the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education to ensure students continue to leave university with qualifications that have real value, reflect their hard work and allow people to progress.
We have seen some fantastic and innovative examples of high-quality online learning being delivered by higher education providers across the country and the sector is working hard to provide learning materials for the summer and autumn terms. Our priority now is to maintain the integrity of higher education qualifications and the achievement of students’ learning aims. The government expects universities to continue delivering a high quality academic experience and help students to achieve qualifications that they and employers will value.
Universities are autonomous and responsible for setting their own fees. In deciding to keep charging full fees, universities will of course want to ensure that they can continue to deliver courses which are fit for purpose and which help students progress their qualifications. If providers are unable to facilitate good online tuition, then they should seek to avoid charging students for any additional terms they may need to undergo as a consequence – avoiding effectively charging them twice. Whether or not an individual student is entitled to a refund of fees will depend on the specific contractual arrangements between the provider and student.
If students have concerns, there is a process in place. They should first raise their concerns with their university. If their concerns remain unresolved, students at providers based in England or Wales can contact the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education to ask them to consider their complaint.
On 15 May 2020, Baroness Berridge also responded to a written question on the re-opening of higher education institutions. In her answer, she stated that the Department for Education are expecting universities, as autonomous institutions, to make their own judgements on re-opening based on the latest Public Health England guidance. The full written question can be found below:
Department for Education
15 May 2020
Lord Truscott: To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to re-open (1) schools, (2) colleges, and (3) universities; and when they intend to announce any such plans.
Baroness Berridge: As a result of the huge efforts everyone has made to adhere to strict social distancing measures, the transmission rate of coronavirus (COVID-19) has decreased. We therefore anticipate, with further progress, that we may be able to welcome back more children to early years, school and further education settings from the week commencing 1 June 2020. We will only do this provided that the five key tests set by government justify the changes at the time, including that the rate of infection is decreasing. As a result we are asking schools, colleges and childcare providers to plan on this basis, ahead of confirmation that these tests are met.
From the week commencing 1 June 2020 at the earliest, we will be asking primary schools to welcome back children in Nursery, Reception, year 1 and year 6, alongside priority groups (vulnerable children and children of critical workers). We will ask secondary schools, sixth form and further education colleges to offer some face-to-face support to supplement the remote education of year 10 and year 12 (and equivalent) students who are due to take key exams next year, alongside the provision they are offering to priority groups.
Regarding the re-opening of universities, the department expects universities, as autonomous institutions, to make their own judgements based on the latest Public Health England guidance. Universities are continuing to provide high quality teaching online. We are working with the higher education sector to develop guidance and best practice that will be needed for universities to make informed decisions about their provision.
Additionally, we have also provided guidance to parents and carers about schools and education settings during the coronavirus outbreak: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/closure-of-educational-settings-information-for-parents-and-carers.
The updated guidance for Further Education providers and colleges throughout the coronavirus outbreak can be found here.
OfS guidance for providers about quality and standards during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic can be found here.
Guidance for parents and carers about schools and other education settings during the coronavirus outbreak can be found here.