Education secretary Gavin Williamson

The questions ‘Invisible Man’ @GavinWilliamson must answer to put parents’ and students’ minds at rest

With thousands of students already in lockdown and anxiety mounting among parents and those yet to travel to campuses across the country, Labour has set out key questions the education secretary must now answer:

  • What steps he took over the summer to ensure that students would be able to return to university safely?
  • Whether after days of chaos and contradictory statements from Conservative politicians, he can finally guarantee that every student will be able to safely return home to be with their families at Christmas after access to testing?
  • What urgent steps are now being taken to ensure that every student can receive the best standard of education, whether on campus or at home? 
  • If he can guarantee that every student who is required to self-isolate will be able to access their education remotely? 
  • What his message is for parents and those students who have not yet moved to campus?
  • What steps are being put in place to support the mental health of students, particularly those who are required to self-isolate? 
  • What help will be provided to students unions to allow them to continue to provide pastoral support to students on and off campus? 

The statement will be the education secretary’s first public comments on the matter. 

In stark contrast to his usual high profile, Williamson hasn’t:

  • made any public appearances in recent days, despite the latest crisis leading the news
  • tweeted since 10 September
  • issued a statement on universities since 10 September – in which he stressed the importance of “deliver[ing] clear messages to students”

Shadow Universities Minister Emma Hardy MP wrote to the government on 9 September asking for a “credible plan” on testing and digital access for the re-opening of universities. The government did not act to improve testing or access to remote learning, despite Labour making clear proposals that they needed to do so. 40 more universities have now reported coronavirus cases.

Darren Fields, Vice President, Networking, EMEA at Citrix, said:

“Just one week in, and the start to the 2020 academic year is already going from bad to worse with many students in lockdown, face-to-face teaching being suspended and now 40 more universities reporting coronavirus cases. Unfortunately, disruption to physical learning as we are seeing in UK universities will inevitably continue until a vaccine is available for widespread use, but this doesn’t have to limit student opportunities for learning. Our recent research found that 1 in 10 students would actually prefer an entirely online experience, while 39% of university students would be open to a hybrid model of on-site and online lectures.  

"To overcome these turbulent times, universities must establish unified online environments that can be activated on demand at short notice while being secure and easy to use for both students and staff. It is a critical time for universities to act now to ensure minimal disruption to learning. It is not too late to embrace technology to save this year’s generation of students.”

In the absence of any direction from the prime minister or the education secretary, the government itself appears to have been left guessing what their intentions are.

Amanda Milling MP claimed yesterday “there are no plans to keep students at university over Christmas”, shortly after culture secretary Oliver Dowden had refused to rule it out, and three days after health secretary Matt Hancock said “we have said that students should stay at university until Christmas.”

This morning, Helen Whately MP could only say that she “hopes” students could come home at Christmas.

Kate Green MP 100x100Kate Green MP, Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary, said:

“After days of silence, this statement is a chance for the education secretary to end his Invisible Man act and begin to get to grips with the situation.

“None of this was unforeseeable. Labour and others have warned that campuses would need access to testing. But – just as with the exams fiasco over the summer - the education secretary has created chaos through his incompetence and failure to act.

“Gavin Williamson must set out what he is doing to resolve these problems and put young people and parents’ minds at rest.”

Universities must provide clarity for students, says regulator

Students should expect good quality higher education, effective support for mental health and wellbeing, and clear information from their universities, the Office for Students (OfS) has said.

Explaining the regulator’s role and commenting on the situation facing students returning to campus,

nicola dandridge100x100Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the OfS, said: 

‘This is a really difficult situation for students, particularly those embarking on their studies away from home for the first time. It is particularly difficult for students facing severe restrictions to their day-to-day lives because of campus lockdowns. Their safety and that of the whole community is, however, crucial. 

‘Universities have worked hard to make campuses safe, and have developed programmes that mix face-to-face and online learning. However, our guidance says that is essential that they provide students with as much clarity as possible on what they can expect. Where the situation changes universities should provide regular information updates. It is also more important than ever that students can access good mental health support to help them settle in, particularly where they are being asked to self-isolate.  The OfS is funding the Student Space service to support student mental health and wellbeing during the coronavirus pandemic. 

‘Where students need to go into insolation, universities have to be clear about how courses will continue to operate in these circumstances and what welfare, resources and support are available. Universities should provide information about how testing can be accessed where it is expected by the health authorities and ensure that such students can access food and other essential provisions. We will be following up with individual universities and colleges where we have concerns about the arrangements they are making for teaching and academic support. 

‘Students have a right to good quality higher education – whether that is taught online, in-person or a mixture of the two. Where they feel this is not happening they can raise concerns with their university, escalating complaints to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator where a resolution cannot be found. They can also inform the OfS, and we can and will investigate if we believe that universities have not taken all reasonable steps to protect standards or where quality is slipping for groups of students. And, of course, students make a significant investment in their higher education and have rights as consumers. In considering whether to make partial tuition fee refunds, we would expect a university to consider the circumstances for each student rather than to adopt a blanket policy that refunds are not available.’

Michelle Donelan 100x100Universities Minister, Michelle Donelan said:

“We understand this is a very difficult time for students, which is why their safety and wellbeing has always been my top priority.

“From the start of the pandemic, we have been clear that we expect universities to continue to deliver a high quality academic experience for all students, and the Government has worked closely with the sector through the Higher Education Taskforce to ensure they are providing online and in-person learning to limit disruption to tuition.

“I welcome the Office for Student’s statement, and reiterate that universities must give as much clarity to students as possible on the tuition they will be receiving, and should ensure that guidance on Covid-19 testing and welfare and emergency resources is readily available.”

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