Claudia WebbeMain Page: Claudia Webbe (Independent - Leicester East)
Department Debates - View all Claudia Webbe's debates with the Department for Education
They say that a student’s time at university will be the best years of their life, but for thousands of students across the UK at the moment, it is a nightmare. Those of us who enjoyed our time at university are probably thinking that we are lucky that we are not them. They are locked up in their halls of residence, attending freshers events over Zoom and running the risk of contracting the virus during face-to-face teaching.
This year’s first-year university students already had to put up the hellish scandal of A-level results day and now they must contend with the shambles that is this Government’s advice to universities on covid-19. While the pandemic is no one’s fault, the way we deal with it must be. Tuition fees have been a controversial topic of debate over the past couple of decades—I was against them then and am against them now. Although it has been stated time and again, it cannot be said enough that education should be a right and not a privilege. We should not charge for it. Ironically, the Cabinet Ministers who were the driving force behind tripling tuition fees some years ago probably went to university free of charge and at the expense of the taxpayer. They have effectively pulled up the drawbridge behind them.
The commercialisation of higher education is a big shame for this country. Lumbering 21-year-olds with £50,000-worth of debt is absolutely disgraceful. When we look at other countries across the world we see thriving, high-income countries investing in their higher education while we push the cost on to students and their families. We will hear again, “It’s fine. You won’t have to repay it until you start earning £26,000-plus a year,” but the psychological toll that that massive amount of debt leaves on an individual is not mentioned. We all know that pay now or pay later, debt is still debt, and those from lower socio-economic backgrounds will always take longer to pay it back and will suffer harsher consequences.
At the moment, university students are paying £9,250 a year to attend university, or, as some of them say, £9,250 to effectively live in prison-like conditions. Students in Manchester have dubbed their university “Her Majesty’s Prison, Manchester University” because fences have been put up to keep them in. Students are paying to stay in halls while watching their lectures online over Zoom and many other platforms. International students from Europe have been asked to come to this country, but, having left their countries, they are attending their lectures online.
I studied biomedical sciences for my first degree, and I think of all the biomedical scientists at the moment who are in their first year of university and probably struggling to attend lectures online. I think about how they get on without all the laboratory work that they have to do. They are simply not getting the education that they need for that course, and I expect that that is the case for many courses. That is all off the back of shoddy advice that called for face-to-face teaching to resume, despite everyone saying that it was a terrible idea. As a result, approximately 2,600 university students and staff have contracted the virus, and many more have had to self-isolate.
The decision to return to face-to-face teaching was dangerous, as has been said by the University and College Union and unions at Manchester, Leeds and elsewhere. They have explicitly stated that it has put staff and students in harm’s way. It is ridiculous to tell students to return to face-to-face teaching, only for them to get to university to find that they are sitting in front of their laptops in their halls of residence. After sending students back to live in communal halls, what happened next was inevitable: a spike in coronavirus cases in university cities. Once again, that was entirely avoidable if we had planned properly for the second wave. It is a scandal that students are literally being made to pay for this.
It is ludicrous to expect students to continue paying extortionate tuition fees when they are not receiving a full service. With any other service, if a customer was dissatisfied or something prevented them from receiving a service to the advertised standard, it would be reasonable for them to demand a refund, so why is it any different for students? We cannot treat university education as a commodity in one respect and not in others. It is either a market commodity, in which case a refund can be requested for a poor service, or it is not, in which case it should be free.
Charging individuals overall to pursue higher education is wrong at the most basic level, but to continue to charge them now is profoundly wrong. It is simply outrageous. The Government must ultimately consider cancelling tuition fees entirely, but in the meantime they should consider refunding the cost of tuition for the entire time that students’ university experience is impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I also want to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) for securing this timely and important debate.
Covid-19 hit the student population hard in spring and summer this year, particularly the three universities in my Liverpool, Riverside constituency. The immediate response was to shift to online learning wherever possible. Students were advised to return home for their third term and some—although by no means all—university accommodation offered refunds. The House of Commons Petitions Committee’s second report, “The impact of Covid-19 on university students” published in July, acknowledged that, although it shifted the responsibility on to individual universities and student accommodation to assess all calls for refunds from individual students. Seventy-eight per cent of students surveyed reported being dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with their learning experience in that period, compared with 84% being satisfied or very satisfied in the previous year. I think that if the survey were done again now, we would find the levels of dissatisfaction to be even higher.
Despite the lack of an effective test, track and trace system, hundreds of thousands of students were encouraged back on to campus in September and we saw the impact of that almost immediately. Rates of infection spiralled among the student population, particularly for first years in halls of residence. Forty thousand students have tested positive for covid-19 and thousands more have been forced to self-isolate. Far from experiencing the same quality of student experience in freshers’ week, as so many universities promised, for many students the reality was being locked down in small rooms, only having access to online teaching and a socially isolated experience, with deteriorating mental health. We have seen young adults, most of them away from their homes for the first time, being locked in and their premises patrolled by guards as they are charged extortionate amounts of money for poor-quality food parcels. Two weeks ago, we saw the situation in Fallowfield in Manchester, where the university students were fenced in in their halls.
Now, students are being encouraged to leave for home between 2 and 9 December; encouraged to vacate their accommodation three weeks early. None of that is the students’ fault. They were encouraged by the Government and the universities to return full time to campuses, despite warnings from student bodies and campus unions, concerned about those scenarios. There is no certainty that university life—social or teaching—will return to normal for the second term. That is not worth £9,000-plus of anyone’s money, and it is not good enough for the Government to put the responsibility of the crisis on individual students to request refunds. The Secretary of State for Education must take responsibility and develop a system for refunding fees for students who have suffered from a lack of face-to-face teaching, and students must be compensated for breaking their tenancy agreements, so that they can return home where they will get the support they need.