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Donelan: no plans to cancel nursing student debt ‘in any way’

Image: David Woolfall [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Universities minister reiterates refusal to reimburse Covid student nurses’ tuition fees

The universities minister has praised the work of student nurses who have been working in the NHS to fight the coronavirus outbreak but confirmed there are “no plans” to reimburse their tuition fee loans “in any way”.
Speaking to the House of Commons education committee, Michelle Donelan said the Covid-19 outbreak had “really shone a light on the amazing work that nurses do”—adding that student nurses had “really stood up and worked completely hard”. 
However, when asked about fee debt by Conservative MP and committee member Tom Hunt, Donelan said the government was not intending to forgive any fee debt accrued while students were working on the wards.
“What we have done is, we’ve said that regardless if they’ve opted in to working on wards, or they’ve continued their studies, [student nurses] will still get their maintenance loans. [We’ve] also confirmed they will still get learning support funding if eligible,” Donelan said. 
“Universities have continued to support them via their hardship funds, and their time on their placements will continue to form part of their degree courses—which they would have had to do anyway. In addition, they have been paid [for their work] and have also got NHS pensions, and at the end of this they can graduate and go on to be fully fledged nurses.”
She added: “At the moment there are no plans to reimburse nurses’ fees in any way.”
Committee chair Robert Halfon—who has written in support of Research Professional News’ “Our Debt Not Theirs” campaign, which calls for fee forgiveness for those students who have joined the frontline fight against Covid-19—then asked Donelan if her use of the phrase “at the moment” meant that fee reimbursement was still being considered. 
“No—it means there is no policy to do it,” Donelan said. 
Elsewhere in his questioning, Ipswich MP Hunt said he was concerned there could be a “deterioration” in the quality of tuition as institutions switch to online teaching as a result of the pandemic. He singled out the University of Cambridge’s decision to rule out in-person lectures until summer next year as a particularly egregious example.
The University of Cambridge has stated that it intends to continue face-to-face teaching for smaller groups, where social distancing can safely be observed. However, Hunt called the cancellation of lectures “a very strange decision” that might exacerbate “concerns about some lecturers focusing too much on research at the expense of actually teaching students”.
In response, Donelan emphasised the importance of universities offering clarity to students on what they could expect, and said that most institutions, including Cambridge, were making a “blended offering” rather than removing all in-person tuition
Hunt said that Cambridge’s position was “very strange and unique”. “I personally do not agree with what they have done, and many students will feel very let down…that’s just my two pennies’ worth,” he added. 
“Tom it is not unique, though, because the majority of universities have opted for that blended offering so they can ensure the safety of students,” Donelan replied.

Pressed again by Hunt on whether Cambridge was alone in cancelling lectures for the full year, Donelan added: “[Cambridge is] not unique in the fact that they are doing a blended offering—so some of it is online and some of it is in-person, which is the general theme of what is happening and what has been announced by institutions. The majority have not announced for the entire year, that is fair to say.”

A spokesperson for the University of Cambridge said its colleges “will welcome as many students as possible to Cambridge for the start of the next academic year…guided always by advice from Public Health England”.

“Small group teaching—supervisions, seminars or individual tuition—is at the heart of our educational provision and will continue in-person as much as possible. Only large lectures—which have only ever been a small part of Cambridge teaching—have been paused.”