Chris EvansMain Page: Chris Evans (Labour (Co-op) - Islwyn)
Department Debates - View all Chris Evans's debates with the Department for Education
[Relevant Documents: Second Report of the Petitions Committee, Session 2019–21, The impact of Covid-19 on university students, HC 527; Third Special Report of the Petitions Committee, Session 2019–21, The impact of Covid-19 on university students: Government Response to the Committee’s Second Report, HC 780.]
I thank the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) for bringing this important matter to the House. I know that he is also the joint chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on customer service, so he must be appalled by the customer service that students are receiving.
I have been following the matter for almost a year, from the strike action to the first covid-19 lockdown, through the exam situation, the return to university and lockdown again. I have spoken to and supported students on the way, and I have learned a lot about what they are going through.
In fact, I made a Blue Collar Conversations podcast on the issue on 23 May called “Has COVID19 Injected a Degree of Uncertainty into University Education?”. I spoke to a list of students, including Emily Bethell, who spoke on behalf of many and relayed some of the things that had happened. In March, the week before lockdown, she was told that if we went into lockdown, the university could cope—that it could move online, it had a good online portal, they could carry on working and it would be relatively normal. However, that was not the case and it did not work out like that.
Despite those institutions being the height of academia, students watched revision lectures that turned out to be a rehash of those from previous years. As for contact, there used to be one-to-one contact—about 120 hours per term—but in the summer term that went down to just four hours, and there was no reduction in the fees. She did not make a complaint, because she thought that her university was measured on good results, and, “We had been told that our exams would be marked compassionately, which meant that we could all get good results”. Therefore, there was no recourse, no complaint and she would not get a refund. She said that this was not her being cynical; she said that this is what they are all talking about, as students together.
She said, “You know, I don’t feel like a student. This is something I have wanted to do all my life. I have aimed to get to university. I feel more like a commodity, and I don’t feel that others think that my education is paramount. It is to me; that is why I am paying £9,000 to attend university.” She also said, “You know what? What I am receiving now is not what I contracted for. It’s not what I signed up to do. I feel more like a tin of baked beans, just packed high and sold off—only in this instance, they are not being sold off cheap. They are being sold off at a very dear price.” She added, “If I had purchased a car with this many problems, I’d have wanted it to have been fixed or I’d have wanted my money back”.
Then there is Bronwen Kershaw. Again, I spoke to her in March, on the 19th. She was in the library and the only thing that she saw was a little notice there saying that it would be closed from the following day. Bronwen studies history and most of her books are actually in hard physical form. With the library being closed the following day, before the exams that were coming up in a couple of months’ time, she had to quickly get as many physical books as she could. There were not that many there, and all the other students were doing the same thing.
Bronwen had hoped that this process would perhaps set about the modernisation of university—surely the books should be online on JSTOR, or on some sort of online library catalogue. The universities need to modernise. She said what she had was “poor service” from March onwards. She received group emails; nothing was personalised. There was no interaction. She said that it was as if strike action had carried on in that university. One of her lecturers had poor internet connection at home, which meant she did not get any online tutorials because it was not possible. So, she felt abandoned and let down.
She then looked into how she would go about getting a refund, but it is not that easy. Then, 20 weeks ago, via the online platform Student Problems, I was interviewed about how a student gets a refund. Obviously, the contract is between the student and the university, so the student has to make a complaint against the university. Then, they have to exhaust the internal process, and only then can they go to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education. Their complaint will be balanced against what the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education says should be the standard of education expected. However, some students did not go along that path. I spoke to the host of the Student Problems website, Sam Rostron, and he asked, “Why don’t you think students are following this route? What are their concerns?” I said that many of them had said to me that they feared reprisals. They were only in their first or second year and they thought they might not get the grade that they should, so they felt that they did not want to upset the apple cart and would not pursue that route. They also said that, in a way, covid was a brand new situation, so they wanted to forgive the university in a way—perhaps it was trying its very best. This was also something that they had wanted to do all their life, so lots of students did not pursue any sort of refund.
Since then we have had the summer recess, and months and months have passed. The students went back to university, having been told they could return. The universities welcomed them and the Government said, “You can go back”. They thought that meant the universities would be up to speed, would be covid-compliant and would be able to teach online. However, that has not proved to be the case.
I am speaking now on behalf of parents from my constituency. Joe Egan from Wilmslow’s son was only at Newcastle University for 48 hours before he was told that all his tutorials and lectures would be online. If he had known that beforehand, he would have taken an Open University degree. Shirley Smith from Alderley Edge has a son who is a fresher at the University of Northampton. She told me that he has only been offered online teaching. She also raised concerns about the evacuation-style plan to get students home for Christmas. Bethan Weston from Wilmslow raised concerns about the mixed standard of lectures, among other issues. Her daughter is in accommodation with 23 others. She has not been able to socialise. She is living in a house, but because there are no communal areas, they are all sitting in the halls and on stairways to speak to one another. She is concerned about the debt, the lockdown and the students’ mental health issues. She said it compares to a prison camp. It is unacceptable. How were young students allowed to go back to university when universities did not have the capability to look after their students? Some of them have literally been locked up in student accommodation.
Another example comes from the Birley campus at Manchester Metropolitan University, posted on the Student Problems website. Some 1,700 students were told to self-isolate for 14 days. How was that news broken to them? They went to leave the campus and were told by security guards that they had to go back inside. There were no emails for a couple of hours. They did not know what was going on. They got no refund for their rent. They all said it was more like Her Majesty’s prison. They were then labelled as super-spreaders and looked down on by the general public. They said that was unfair. They had been told that they could go to university. What else were they to do?
On 11 November, the SAFER—Student Action for a Fair and Educated Response—report came out. It said that our universities have prioritised profit over student welfare, and that the cost of an online honours degree at the Open University would be over £9,000 cheaper at the end of three years. It said there is a lack of adequate support in the halls, of regular testing and even of food. We are talking about vulnerable 18 and 19-year-olds for whom this may be the first time they have moved away from home, and this is how they are being treated.
My question to the Minister come from students in my constituency, parents and SAFER. The university has claimed tuition fees are a Government issue; the Government are saying they are a university issue; people are asking the Government to clarify who is responsible. If both university and Government are responsible, how and when will the issue be resolved? If it is a university issue, what pressure can Government bring to bear on the universities to get this sorted? What meetings are Government Ministers having with university students, so that they can explain their concerns? Can we have a simpler refund process? Finally, can there be an automatic refund for those who were locked down? Universities and Government must do the right thing by our young people and their families.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate, and I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to a number of the points that he and other hon. Members have made.
I acknowledge the significant impact that covid-19 has had on staff, students and higher education providers. The Government do not for one minute underestimate that. This pandemic has been hard for all of us, but in so many ways young people have been disproportionately impacted. Students have been left facing a number of challenges. I am hugely grateful for the resilience, innovation and dedication shown by staff and students over the past nine months. The constant uncertainty has made things worse, but the improvements in mass testing and constant scientific advances, including a potential vaccine, offer a glimmer of hope.
We have heard some compelling speeches today focusing on the case for a tuition fee refund. I repeat that the Government get how hard the ramifications of covid have been. In fact, they have been at the forefront of my mind throughout. Since March, therefore, I have emphasised the importance of keeping universities open during the pandemic, as I reiterated in my recent letter to higher education providers. We simply cannot ask young people to put their education and lives on hold indefinitely. The human cost of lost opportunity and damaged social mobility would be immense. The Government were elected on a manifesto to level up; curtailing the ambitions and dreams of our young is not the way to achieve that.
We listened to the scientific advice, which informed our higher education guidance at every stage, including the return to university. The hon. Member for Islwyn and many other hon. Members have called for a blanket tuition fee refund, but it should be noted that the Government do not set the minimum level of tuition fees. We set the maximum, and we have been very clear that if higher education providers want to continue to charge the maximum, they must ensure that the quality, quantity and accessibility of tuition is maintained. We have been working closely with the Office for Students to ensure that, and we will continue to do so.
We have heard accounts of students who feel that the quality of their education has declined. My message to them is that there is a system in place that can help. First, a student should pursue the official complaints procedure at their university. If they remain unsatisfied, they should go to the OIA. That can lead to some form of tuition fee refund. Without the first stage, institutions would not have the opportunity for early resolution of complaints with students, so it is important.
I hear the concern, including from my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Esther McVey), that students may be reluctant to come forward. I reassure all students, however, that the OIA’s good practice framework is clear that there must be appropriate levels of confidentiality without disadvantage and that providers should make that clear to all students.
OIA cases will normally be completed within 90 days, and the process is designed to make it simple and easy for students. The form is online. It asks for basic information and a summary of the complaint. The OIA requires the provider rather than the student to send it all the information. Some hon. Members have argued that the policy places too much on the shoulders of students.
You will correct me if I am wrong, Sir David, but I believe that question is slightly out of scope for a petition on higher education. In relation to higher education, my understanding is that the care leavers who have needed those devices have received them. If any hon. Member knows of cases to the contrary, I would be more than happy to pick that matter up.
I agree with many of the points that have been made about the crucial role that universities play in social mobility, including the point, made by the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell), about the economic recovery. Universities will be vital in that mission as we progress.
This has been an unprecedented year, so it is really important to recognise the tireless work of university lecturers, administrators and support staff over the past few months, and how students have adapted. However, I will make one message clear today: students have not been forgotten. I will continue to work across Government to ensure that universities uphold their obligations under consumer law. We must ensure that students and staff are safe and supported, and that students receive the high quality of education that they rightly expect.