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Campus lockdown and Parliamentary encounters

The chaos at many universities unfolded further this week as the number of COVID-19 cases increased across our campuses. Many students complain of being in ‘prison’ as online teaching becomes the norm. This was entirely expected and should come as no surprise to those in Parliament. Some universities can cope better than others, but it is the less advantaged students who will be most affected most. It is therefore with alarm that the House of Commons had to witness two sorry encounters between the Shadow Education Secretary and the Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson.  He told us of an imaginary £100 million digital access fund for universities. Then of equally imaginary extra maintenance support from the Student Loans Company. This was topped off by him crowing about £256 million for student hardship funds, despite it being a cut from £277 million last year. Each imaginary assertion combined to highlight the cynical attitude of the government to student hardship. It will take time for the full impact of the crisis on less advantaged students to be uncovered. But the government has fair warning that its wilful inaction and lack of concern will be held to account.

The media, in its coverage of universities, were attracted to the ‘low hanging fruit’ of ‘halls of residence’ where trapped students festooned their windows with calls for ‘HELP’ and banners that indicated they were in 'HMP'. These provided readymade images. Twitter is awash with commentary on wild parties, universities warning students to remove the banners and, in one case, telling students to wash their socks in their room sinks. Less reported are the extraordinary lengths universities and their staff are going to as they rush to help students having to self-isolate. But the humour hides a more serious problem sweeping through the campuses.

Not all accommodation is the same and in 'halls of residence'.

The focus of attention on student residences is coming from a very ‘middle class’ idealised perspective. While many such blocks have shared facilities, there are other more expensive ones with ensuite facilities and many other amenities. Universities like Oxford and Cambridge boast of college facilities. For those with more resources, it is not such a terrible experience. It is also likely that on-campus rooms and those in the better-appointed private providers are well equipped with fast internet access. But unseen in the background are the many students who must endure the lower standards of private landlord accommodation. This can mean sharing a cramped house or flat that might be less than optimal for heating with damp conditions. There might be several sharing a slow internet connection and trying to ration its use at different times of the day. 

Many other students, particularly those estranged from their families or international and far from home, are trapped in university halls. Meanwhile the others have already started to abandon ship and head home. They may find they can be reimbursed for the costs. However, those who can least afford the rent, and are using private landlords, will find it much more difficult. They will find themselves tied to contracts they cannot escape from. Many in shared accommodation will find they are jointly liable and any one of their guarantors could be hit by the cost of renting the whole house or flat. I sublet a cheap flat, and took full responsibility myself, when I was a post-graduate student in Cardiff in the 1970s. If any of my flatmates had jumped ship, I would have been severely financially exposed.

Saving face or bust. 

Meanwhile some universities are recklessly pushing on with face to face teaching despite the vulnerability for many staff and their families. Rising cases on campus must mean that we should send students home now and ‘reset the clock’ (see TEFS 25th September 2020 ‘Riders on the storm: Urgent action is needed or reset the clock’). The crisis can only become worse if it drifts further’. With the whole thing unravelling, it seems political leaders are facing in another direction.

Parliamentary encounter number one - Tuesday.

It was in this context of a rapidly worsening situation that the Shadow Education Secretary, Kate Green, clashed with her counterpart in Government, Gavin Williamson. On Tuesday, she rightly pressed Williamson on digital support for students at university. This was his response.

“we have made £100 million available for universities to use to ensure that youngsters have digital access, including students from the most deprived backgrounds, who would perhaps not be in a position to access courses. It is vital that if we are in a situation where people will have blended learning, all students are able to access it. We are taking seriously some of the challenges that all students and universities will face, which is why we have made £256 million available to make sure that where students are facing real hardship, universities can access funding to help them

He also said later The Student Loans Company also offers a system whereby extra maintenance support can be made available through individual assessment if a student chooses to go down that route”.

This was astounding on three levels. Firstly, there is no “£100 million” fund for university student digital access. Secondly, there is no “extra maintenance support” from the student loan company. Thirdly, he talks of £256 million for hardship funds without mentioning it is a cut of £21 million from last year and is diverted from the existing student premium funding (see TEFS 11th September 2020 ‘Government response to digital poverty, job losses, and student hardship: A £21 million cut to its support’)

Parliamentary encounter number two – Thursday.

It took a while for Kate Green to realise she had been duped. She later asked for the record to be corrected but found it was not. But she was fortunate to be able to challenge Williamson directly on Thursday with a point of order. See the encounter here.

See also Hansard ‘Point of Order 1st October 2020’ where she challenged with:

“In his statement on the return of students to university on Tuesday, the Secretary of State made two claims that I believed were not fully accurate, and later that day I sought a correction to the record. The Secretary of State said on Tuesday that there was £100 million in funding for universities to provide digital access for learners. There is no such fund. That funding is for schools and some further education providers. He also said that the Student Loans Company can provide additional support to students who need it. Again, that does not appear to be accurate. I was grateful that the Secretary of State’s office indicated that there would be a correction to the record, but today when I looked in Hansard, all that was changed was the date on which he said guidance was published. It seems that he has corrected one mistake, which I must admit I did not know about, but failed to correct two more that he was asked to correct. May I ask for your guidance, Mr Deputy Speaker, on how we can have all the Secretary of State’s mistakes corrected on the record?”

Williamson’s response was to 'confirm' that he had been 'incorrect' with an astounding piece evasion. 

“As the House will know, the Government have made available more than £100 million for electronic devices. Those youngsters who are in care and going on to university can access that funding to enable them to have the right type of devices, whether that is a laptop or a router. If a student’s family circumstances change while they are at university, they can go to the Student Loans Company to have their maintenance grant re-assessed”

Unlike Tuesday, this statement is in fact more correct. But it means that only students going from care to university can expect to receive help with laptops and other computing. These are a very low number at only 6% of those coming from care to university at 18 years old. Williamson announced the school laptop scheme on 19th April 2020 and it later emerged it was not what it seemed. For some inexplicable reason he had assumed that every school already had as many as 282 laptops each to deploy (Schools Week 19th August 2020 ‘DfE assumed schools had 282 devices each before deciding free laptop allocations’). Later still, it seems that many schools were still waiting for laptops (see The Guardian 7th June 2020 ‘We're still waiting’: schools lack free laptops pledged for poorer GCSE pupils’).

He then confirmed what was obviously the case all along; that there is no additional funding from the Student Loans Company. Instead students can have their loan reassessed if the family income drops considerably as confirmed by the SLC earlier. It all amounts to something that most observers think was misleading.

Many observers are seeing the wilful neglect for what it is.

These two encounters are typical of a government intent on supporting those like themselves who they understand and expect their votes in return. But the wilful avoidance of those of lesser advantage is not going to end well. Any notion of social mobility and fairness has been cynically ignored. Yet, they have been warned. On 3rd September the Office for Students (OfS) warned that ‘Digital poverty’ risks leaving students behind’. On the same day the OfS launched a review, ‘ Digital teaching and learning in English higher education during the coronavirus pandemic: Call for evidence’, that will pile on more pressure when it’s findings emerge after the 14th of October.

This week saw more concerns emerge as the OfS Director for Fair Access and Participation, Chris Milward spoke at a Higher Education Policy Institute webinar, ‘How do we improve access and participation in higher education in an age of COVID-19?’ (still available online), on Wednesday. He backed this up with an article ‘Access to higher education before, during and after the pandemic’ on the same day. It seems that only stretched universities will be held to account well after the ‘horse has bolted’ and the damage is done. He promised “We will issue guidance to universities and colleges in November 2020, which will set out how they should report in spring 2021 on the activity and financial support they delivered to students through their access and participation plans during 2019/20, together with any impact the pandemic has had on the plans we have agreed with them from 2020/21 onwards”. Maybe it would be better to issue guidance to their masters in the Government. 

At the same webinar, former CEO of the Sutton Trust, Lee Elliot Major, Professor of Social Mobility at the University of Exeter, pressed for a league table of fair access to universities, less reliance on testing and contextual admissions. The current rankings work against fairer access. TEFS has observed that this is particularly the case for universities who have joined the elite Russell Group of universities.

There is not doubt that those from less advantaged backgrounds will find things very quickly getting harder for them. Their ranks will be swelled by even more families hit by the oncoming wave of unemployment. They will all become the ‘Riders on the Storm’ and are unlikely to be very forgiving. 

Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics. He has served on the Senate and Finance and planning committee of a Russell Group University.


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