Our Universities provide enormous value to our country every day and currently they are playing an important part in the country’s fight against COVID 19. Research on vaccines and testing, supporting final year medical students on the frontline of our NHS, creating PPE, providing free accommodation in halls of residence for key workers are among the many vital services they are offering during this national emergency.
But at the same time our universities face a worrying and uncertain future.
An over-reliance on international tuition fees and an unequal regional distribution of research grants mean higher education finances are vulnerable to the crisis. Without government support, Labour is concerned that many universities face closure or having to operate at a reduced capacity, with a damaging knock-on effect for jobs and social mobility.
Universities UK has warned that a 100% fall in fee income from international (Non-EU and EU) students would result in a £6.9 billion loss of income to the UK higher education sector.
This is why Labour has called on the government to underwrite higher education funding to protect and prevent institutions from going bankrupt as a result of the coronavirus crisis.
A failure to provide timely and comprehensive support to our universities in the face of this crisis will create “cold spots” in the country for access to higher education to those who benefit from it the most. We know that students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and part-time and mature students, make up the large proportion of commuter students and they will suffer disproportionately if regional HE institutions close.
Universities bring significant benefits to their local communities. They play a central role in supporting local economies, employ large numbers of staff and contribute enormously through volunteering, cultural events and community activities. If these institutions were to disappear, the damaging consequences would extend beyond the classroom and impact locally and nationally.
Not only are the institutes themselves facing an uncertain future so are thousands of students. During this crisis many students who relied on part-time work can no longer support themselves and will require access to additional financial support.
I’m obviously delighted that Lancaster has been proactive in cancelling rent for university accommodation. In addition, students who have faced severe disruption to their study should not be required to pay tuition fees again if they need to retake courses and the Government needs to address how this will be funded.
The Government also needs to anticipate an increased drop-out rate when the semester starts again and further decline in the number of students from lower economic social groups attending university because of the cancellation of face to face widening participation events and visits. I am concerned that teacher assessment, an unequal home-schooling experience and ‘digital poverty’ will result in a weaker performance of BAME groups and pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds and that this in turn could impact student admissions.
We will also need clarity on what additional support the government can provide in supporting students’ and staff’s mental health and wellbeing given that university student support services will be stretched.
Our universities will play a vital role in the recovery and future prosperity of our country. It is essential therefore, that no institutions are allowed to suffer. Allowing any HE institution to fail hinders the ability of our economy to bounce back from this crisis and denies UK citizens the equality of opportunity that should be a given right. As Malcolm X said, “Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today.”