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Emma Hardy’s open letter to universities minister

Image: Richard Townshend, [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Labour universities spokeswoman raises concerns with minister on students, Europe, visas and Covid-19 recovery

23 June 2020

Dear Michelle,

I would like to thank you again for our regular meetings and for your efforts to take opinions and listen to concerns from all areas of higher education. Ahead of our next meeting I would like to raise the following matters.

You will have now received a report from the National Union of Students on their survey of nearly 10,000 students between 27 March and 6 April. It makes concerning reading. 72 per cent of students were worried about their ability to pay rent and 70 per cent were worried about their ability to pay bills.

As was feared, the lockdown has affected those who needed to work to support themselves and their studies. 62 per cent held jobs of some sort alongside their courses, and the vast majority of those—54 per cent of all those sampled—have suffered a reduction in income. 55 per cent reported that the income of those adults who provide financial support to help them study has been negatively impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, with nearly one in five reporting a ‘major impact’.

It is clear from the report that the financial impact of the pandemic on many students will not disappear in September with the arrival of their next loan cheque. Student hardship funds were not designed for the level or the scope of the demands from a global pandemic. The NUS report includes case studies of funds buckling under pressure and difficulties in access. Without positive steps taken now there will be an increase in the dropout rate, particularly amongst the most disadvantaged students.

It remains the case that the job market will be severely depressed for this year’s graduates. A YouGov poll of 5,000 students showed two-thirds had job offers withdrawn or put on hold.

Proposals of support from the sector include a system of six-month-long paid internships at the national living wage, which would allow graduates to gain invaluable experience and a one-off financial support package for taught postgraduate courses that do not currently attract funding, as well as a temporary increased loan for masters courses where the current £10,000 loan for fees and maintenance is insufficient for many. We must be able to do more for these graduates than just signpost them to the JobCentre and hope that the job coaches have the skills and knowledge needed.

The uncertainties surrounding participation in Horizon Europe must be resolved. Under the predecessor research scheme Horizon 2020, the UK received 15 per cent of all agreed funds, worth about £3.5bn. If the government decides it will not participate, it must make good the funding losses. This is not just about money, however. It is about international collaboration and access.

This contribution to the UK is harder to calculate. The government’s position so far is that the UK will only participate “if it is in the UK’s interest to do so”. I remain at a loss to understand how it could possibly be to the detriment of the UK to participate, and I look forward to hearing the potential downsides explained.

We are agreed that the role international students play in UK universities is a vital one and I hope that your meeting with immigration minister Kevin Foster was a fruitful one. Not only are international students an essential source of revenue but in some cases their presence is all that enables individual courses to be viable—to the benefit of the UK students who also take those courses. I was in conversation with Maritime UK recently, who impressed on me that several of the world-renowned courses run by their members are only made possible by the participation of international students.

As you know, the positive experiences and relationships forged by international students while studying in the UK play a major role in the UK’s standing in the world. I hope you were able to impress upon the minister the importance of UK universities being seen as ‘open for business’ and the role the Home Office can play in the visa process to position the UK as an attractive and welcoming destination.

At our last meeting I raised the difficulties facing some student nurses regarding placements. As you know, they are required by the Nursing and Midwifery Council to complete 12 weeks and 2,300 hours of final placement to qualify. Normally this is accomplished by the end of July, at which time their maintenance grants run out.

However, I have received reports that many will not be able to achieve this on schedule through interruptions due to Covid-19. Now it has emerged that those who took on a six-month contract are to be released early.

As I currently understand it, funding is now guaranteed for all final-year nurses until September. However, there is no guarantee a placement will be found and completed by then and it is not clear what will happen in those circumstances. Nor is it clear whether the funding for nurses who were not on the six-month contract, but are still unable to complete placements by 31 July, will be in the form of a grant or further debt.

I should add that there are still second-year nurses who are struggling to complete placements for the year and fear they may be required to self-fund over the summer to catch up. I understand your office is making further enquiries and I trust that all our student nurses will be able to complete their studies successfully and without financial penalty.

I look forward to the details of the proposed Structured Transformation Scheme. I sincerely hope that what you described as a last resort will not need to be used by any higher education institution. I remain concerned that geographic factors must play a role in any considerations for restructuring of courses.

While many students take advantage of the ability to leave their home towns, there is a significant number who cannot, and instead use their local university. These ‘commuter students’ are predominantly from disadvantaged or BAME backgrounds. They also include mature and part-time students.

Any reduction in the offer of a university will have a disproportionate impact on this group should no other equivalent courses be available locally. With the reskilling and retraining we are going to need in the economic recovery from the pandemic, these ‘local offers’ are going to become more important, not less.

On the matter of reskilling and retraining post pandemic, I would be interested to hear what role you propose for universities and how the government intend to support them in meeting what is likely to be a considerable need. Future prosperity will depend on the UK aiming high when it comes to the skills and training of its workforce and universities are uniquely placed to play a role in what must be an ambitious programme. I also hope that you can provide assurances that current commitments to widening participation and extending bursaries for students from disadvantaged backgrounds will be maintained.

I look forward to your updates on the above matters at our next meeting and thank you again for extending this courtesy.

Yours sincerely,


Emma Hardy MP
Shadow minister for further education and universities
Hull West and Hessle