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Interview: Paul Blomfield

Image: Parliament UK

Chris Parr speaks to the chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Students

“I represent more students than any other member of parliament by a long way,” Paul Blomfield tells Research Professional News as we kick off our wide-ranging chat about higher education—taking place over the phone, which feels a little anachronistic in the Zoom era. “About a third of my constituents are students.”

This quirk of the Sheffield Central constituency makes it one of the safest Labour seats in the country. In fact, it was in 1935 that the seat was last won by a Conservative MP—although the Liberal Democrats made a fist of it in 2010, coming within 200 votes of an upset (with those student voters no doubt invigorated by the now infamous pledge to vote against any rise in tuition fees).

Nonetheless, Blomfield prevailed—as he did in 2015, 2017 and 2019—and he now holds a majority of more than 27,000. However, far from taking their vote for granted, Blomfield has made it his mission to stand up for students in Westminster. He is now co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for International Students, secretary of the All-Party Parliamentary University Group, and founder and chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Students—the role for which he is perhaps best known to Research Professional News readers.

“I set it up about seven years ago because I felt they needed a voice, and to give students access to parliamentarians,” he says. “It seemed like an omission, but I can’t explain why [such a group didn’t already exist].”

The past 12 months have seen students repeatedly thrust front and centre of the news agenda. “Obviously, Covid-19 has brought into focus some fairly specific issues,” Blomfield says—chief among them, of course, is the dual issue of whether refunds should be issued for tuition fees and accommodation costs.

Blomfield has been clear through his words in the Commons and his APPG’s report into the issue that for him, the solution lies in the creation of a substantial hardship fund—specifically, to the value of £700 million. It is fair to say that the £70m released by the Department for Education so far has not impressed him, with the Sheffield MP comparing the per-student breakdown of that figure to the “wages for half a shift in a bar job” during one memorable parliamentary debate.

“Michelle [Donelan, the universities minister] was quick to say the money won’t be spent in this way, but it’s a benchmark,” he tells us. “If you average it out, it’s £26 per student in England.” Donelan’s point was that the fund will not be accessed by all students, meaning the per-student figure will be higher. “That’s right—obviously, it will focus on need, and it will be distributed through universities to address need, but it is insufficient to address need,” Blomfield responds.

“The Scottish government has put in £80 per student, the Welsh government £300 per student and last week the Northern Ireland government put in £500 per student—more, if you actually look at some of the add-ons. So we’re not getting equity across the four nations, and students in England, whichever of the four nations they are from…are not getting anything like the support that they need.”

Comparing the £26 to half a bar shift is no accident either, Blomfield explains. “One issue that we haven’t talked about as much as we should have through the pandemic—because the discourse has been about rents and fees—is the loss of income for students from jobs in the retail and hospitality sectors,” he says.

“I think there is often a misunderstanding—one that probably extends to parliament—where people judge student life from their own experience 20, 30 or 40 years earlier, and there’s a lack of recognition that the earnings from term-time jobs are no longer the icing on the cake but are actually a fundamental part of the income that students need to support themselves through university.”

The refund question

Blomfield’s apparent preference for a more significant hardship fund over the offer of tuition and accommodation refunds for students comes from an understanding of the complications associated with such undertakings.

On accommodation, he fears an “unjust settlement” could result, with students at older universities, which typically provide more accommodation to students, more likely to be compensated than those “often from poorer backgrounds in newer universities where the institution doesn’t provide the accommodation, and it is provided through the private sector”.

He acknowledges the complexity for private landlords, too. “Among small landlords, there are some examples of pretty bad practice, which we hear about all the time—but there are also people who let the odd house and it’s their pension,” he says.

On fee refunds, Blomfield says it is time to acknowledge that “however good the learning experience is for most students” during the pandemic, “it is not as good as it would have been”.

“I pay tribute to our universities and their staff for the extraordinary lengths they have gone to offer Covid-secure teaching, blended learning and online provision, but nobody can pretend that it is as good as what would have been available otherwise—and frankly, I think it was a mistake for some universities to suggest that it might have been because it’s fed a narrative that develops the case for a fee discount,” he says.

The disruption, he adds, has varied from course to course, meaning that rather than a blanket approach to refunds, policies should “focus on learning loss”.

“You might argue that, in some areas, 90 per cent of your learning will have given you all the skills you need to get the degree you would otherwise have got, in which case that’s not a problem,” he says. “And there are other degrees, particularly professional degrees, in which there are components of learning that are…essential for professional qualification. Those need to be addressed.”

That may be true, but Research Professional News points out that if you only received 90 per cent of your meal in a restaurant then it might be enough to fill you up but you would still expect some money off the bill.

“[The APPG for Students] heard from a wide range of students, from those on sciences and engineering courses through to music students who haven’t had the opportunity to perform together,” Blomfield says. “What we need to be doing is looking at the learning loss, and addressing that through additional study, paid for by the government, delivered by universities.”

This setting up of a “learning remediation fund” would, he adds, be preferable to “any sort of token gesture in terms of fees”.

“Clearly, this is an extraordinary period that we’re going through—and it’s hit many people hard in very many ways. We can’t compensate for the lack of social experience at university; we can’t compensate for many of the impacts of the pandemic. But just as in other areas like the furlough scheme and access to Universal Credit, things which are denied to students…we need targeted support in terms of learning loss.”

Away from the issue of refunds, tuition fees remain a thorny issue for the Labour Party. Party leader Keir Starmer remains committed to his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn’s policy of scrapping fees altogether, while Blomfield says that he himself has “always argued for graduate tax”.

“I think there’s a widespread recognition, even among the many students I talk to, that there should be a balance of contributions from the state, employers and indeed from graduates,” he says. “What we need to do is find a fair way of doing that.”

There is, he believes, “a route through” by abolishing fees but collecting a student contribution through a graduate tax.

“The current system has a progressive element to it, but…it’s a system in which you pay back what you need to borrow to get to university. A graduate tax simply places a premium on the benefits you gain from university…it would share the contribution more equitably.”

He concedes that the system would mean that “in some cases, those who went into the very, very highest-paying jobs would probably pay back a little bit more than the cost of their education”, while “those who went into low-pay jobs, often in the public sector, pay significantly less”.

Regrettably, Blomfield says that because the issue of student experience during the pandemic has become such a “hot potato”, politicians may have been too reticent about dealing with the issues. One example is the government’s insistence that fee refunds are a matter for universities and that unhappy students should complain either to their institution or to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator.

“We have a Department for Education with a weak leadership, which is probably not doing well in its battles with the Treasury for resource,” Blomfield says, adding that there has been “a deliberate attempt to shift the responsibility back onto universities instead of owning it as a government”. The problems caused by Covid-19 “need to be owned by government and solved by government, in partnership with the sector”, he says.

Wharton appointment

Blomfield also has deep concerns about the leadership of the Office for Students, specifically regarding the appointment of James Wharton—a Conservative peer who ran Boris Johnson’s Tory leadership campaign—to the position of chair. “Wharton is going to have to do an awful lot to justify [his appointment] because he seems spectacularly unqualified for the job,” Blomfield says. “We’ll have to see whether the fears are justified or whether he has got some ability to make up for his obvious lack of knowledge and experience.”

On 10 February, the government came out swinging in response to what it termed “unfounded suggestions in the press” that the appointment of Wharton “was not made in line with standard guidelines for such appointments”. Blomfield is unconvinced. “I think [the appointment] raises issues about the way these sorts of government appointments are made. There has been a sort of consensus across parties over many years that these sorts of jobs are given to people who are transparently well qualified and able to play a role which sits above party politics.

“Unfortunately, the Johnson government, in contrast even with previous Conservative governments, is adopting a much more ideological approach, giving plum roles to people who are simply consistent with their thinking whether or not they’ve got the Tory whip in the House of Lords, and I don’t think that’s good for public life.”

The Department for Education said in its statement yesterday that the appointment was “made by ministers in line with the Governance Code on Public Appointments, which sets out the principles of public appointments”, and that the process was “regulated by the Independent Commissioner for Public Appointments, who plays a vital role in ensuring the process is open and fair”.

Research students

While much of the debate around the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on students has focused on undergraduates, Blomfield has also made a point of standing up for “overlooked” postgraduates—not least in their battle with UK Research and Innovation.

Last year, UKRI told PhD students to try to adapt their projects to complete their research within the original timelines, but PhD students are campaigning for the funder to provide blanket extensions to all affected students. To date, UKRI has allocated more than £60m to support extensions for final-year students and for students who found it “most difficult to adjust their project and training plan”.

Last week, Blomfield wrote to UKRI chief executive Ottoline Leyser to ask about her “plans for the mitigation of any harm to research throughout the pandemic”.

“The concern is that so much of the discourse has been around teaching and inevitably focusing on undergraduates and postgraduate teaching programmes,” Blomfield says, adding that UKRI needs to “step up to the mark, recognise…and accept the case for [an] extension [of] studentships”.

Meanwhile, students who are not funded by UKRI “need to have access to support so they can continue their research and complete their work to the same standard that they would otherwise be able to do”, he adds. So does he back calls from the postgraduate research community for blanket funding extensions for all those affected?

“I know there’s an argument for blanket extensions, but I think work has been disrupted differently and it may be that for some the extension needs to be longer than the blanket proposal that’s been made,” he says, adding that it would be “helpful to look at cases individually” but that “there shouldn’t be the sort of bureaucratic obstacles to accessing extensions that many postgraduate students are worried about through the current UKRI processes”.

International exchange

In addition to his higher education roles, Blomfield was also shadow minister with responsibility for Brexit between 2016 and the end of 2020—a tough gig in a Labour Party that was serially conflicted on the issue. What, then, does he make of the UK’s decision to ditch membership of the European Union’s Erasmus+ exchange programme and replace it with the homegrown Turing scheme? It is fair to say he is less than impressed.

“Clearly Turing is not [an exchange scheme],” he says in reference to the programme that funds UK students to go overseas but not vice versa. “[Leaving Erasmus] was one of the most surprising of the many stupid decisions that the government made in relation to Brexit…because it was a relatively inexpensive, widely regarded programme—not simply the benefit for UK students, but the benefit to the UK through the European students who came to our country.”

“You sometimes get that sense that it was one of those things that they ditched because they were kind of throwing red meat to what Philip Hammond described as the Brexit extremists in their party—ditching stuff that has Europe in the title.” He compares it to the decision to replace the European health insurance card with a global health insurance card.

“There are two significant differences [between these cards],” he says. “One is it’s got ‘global’ in the title rather than ‘European’; the other is that [the global card] covers fewer countries than the European health insurance card and none of them are outside Europe.”

It was “foolish to pull out of Erasmus, and Turing is a poor substitute”, he continues, “not least because…Erasmus was an exchange programme and we benefited enormously from bringing students from the rest of Europe into the UK. Turing doesn’t do that at all.”

Freedom of speech

We ended our discussion with Blomfield somewhat inevitably on the persistent issue of free speech in universities.

Blomfield is surely well placed, as an MP with thousands of students on his doorstep and as chair of the APPG for Students, to gauge whether this hot topic really is an issue for students on campus. Is there a need, as David Davis proposed last month, for legislation on the matter?

“I don’t think we need to. I don’t think it’s a real concern,” Blomfield says. “I think universities are quite capable of dealing with issues that crop up. But I’m deeply conscious, if you look back, that whenever the Tories are in trouble, or just looking for issues to blow out of proportion, they keep going back to free speech in universities.

“Sometimes they’re pushing in one direction, saying it should be opened up; sometimes they’re pushing in the other direction and suggesting they’re not happy about some of the things that people are saying on campus…but I think that the use of culture wars damages our politics in the same way it’s damaged politics in the United States, and I regret it very much.”

This interview originally appeared in our 8am Playbook email.