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Labour MPs respond to key worker bailout plan

Image: Chris McAndrew [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Senior opposition figures react to UUK and MillionPlus proposals

Universities’ pitch for a government bailout to support the training of key public sector workers is a “shrewd move” that could secure “long-needed improvements”, but it must not inadvertently lead to a “two-tier support system” in higher education, a Labour MP has warned.

On 29 April, MillionPlus and Universities UK outlined a series of proposals they believe will protect and support key public service provision at universities in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic—including by offering a maintenance grant of up to £10,000 for students in disciplines such as nursing and teaching, and creating a “Public Services in Higher Education Capital Fund” to help universities to invest in equipment and additional staff.

Daniel Zeichner (pictured), chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Universities and Labour MP for Cambridge, said there was a “delicate negotiation going on between and within both the sector and the government, and there is a lot to play for”.

“The provision of vital skills for public services rarely gets attention and it is a shrewd move to make a pitch for long-needed improvements at a time when sympathy for public service workers is at a high,” he said. “It is one university sector, however, and it is important that we don’t inadvertently move to a two-tier support system that could have unintended longer-term consequences.”

The new package of measures proposed yesterday would be of most benefit to institutions that cater to a large number of public sector degree students—which would typically include the modern universities represented by MillionPlus. However most medical schools are based in pre-92 institutions, and would also potentially benefit from the proposals.

Meanwhile, Emma Hardy, the shadow universities minister, told Research Professional News that “a decade of public sector cuts” had made the national effort against the spread of the coronavirus “more difficult”.

“We know that the economy is going to struggle after Covid-19 and that many people will need to retrain and the proposals suggested by UUK could help build our capacity for the future,” she said. “Labour believes that education, from early years to adult learning, should be free and that tuition fees should be scrapped.”

A government spokesperson said: “We are incredibly grateful for the efforts of key workers during this unprecedented time and the students who have bravely chosen to support the government in their response to the Covid-19 outbreak.

“We want to ensure that the current and future students who have opted in to the Covid-19 response are rewarded fairly for their hard work and there is a range of existing support and bursaries available for courses in key worker professions.”