Monday 16th November 2020

(1 year, 9 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Esther McVey Portrait Esther McVey (Tatton) (Con)
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I thank the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) for bringing this important matter to the House. I know that he is also the joint chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on customer service, so he must be appalled by the customer service that students are receiving.

I have been following the matter for almost a year, from the strike action to the first covid-19 lockdown, through the exam situation, the return to university and lockdown again. I have spoken to and supported students on the way, and I have learned a lot about what they are going through.

In fact, I made a Blue Collar Conversations podcast on the issue on 23 May called “Has COVID19 Injected a Degree of Uncertainty into University Education?”. I spoke to a list of students, including Emily Bethell, who spoke on behalf of many and relayed some of the things that had happened. In March, the week before lockdown, she was told that if we went into lockdown, the university could cope—that it could move online, it had a good online portal, they could carry on working and it would be relatively normal. However, that was not the case and it did not work out like that.

Despite those institutions being the height of academia, students watched revision lectures that turned out to be a rehash of those from previous years. As for contact, there used to be one-to-one contact—about 120 hours per term—but in the summer term that went down to just four hours, and there was no reduction in the fees. She did not make a complaint, because she thought that her university was measured on good results, and, “We had been told that our exams would be marked compassionately, which meant that we could all get good results”. Therefore, there was no recourse, no complaint and she would not get a refund. She said that this was not her being cynical; she said that this is what they are all talking about, as students together.

She said, “You know, I don’t feel like a student. This is something I have wanted to do all my life. I have aimed to get to university. I feel more like a commodity, and I don’t feel that others think that my education is paramount. It is to me; that is why I am paying £9,000 to attend university.” She also said, “You know what? What I am receiving now is not what I contracted for. It’s not what I signed up to do. I feel more like a tin of baked beans, just packed high and sold off—only in this instance, they are not being sold off cheap. They are being sold off at a very dear price.” She added, “If I had purchased a car with this many problems, I’d have wanted it to have been fixed or I’d have wanted my money back”.

Then there is Bronwen Kershaw. Again, I spoke to her in March, on the 19th. She was in the library and the only thing that she saw was a little notice there saying that it would be closed from the following day. Bronwen studies history and most of her books are actually in hard physical form. With the library being closed the following day, before the exams that were coming up in a couple of months’ time, she had to quickly get as many physical books as she could. There were not that many there, and all the other students were doing the same thing.

Bronwen had hoped that this process would perhaps set about the modernisation of university—surely the books should be online on JSTOR, or on some sort of online library catalogue. The universities need to modernise. She said what she had was “poor service” from March onwards. She received group emails; nothing was personalised. There was no interaction. She said that it was as if strike action had carried on in that university. One of her lecturers had poor internet connection at home, which meant she did not get any online tutorials because it was not possible. So, she felt abandoned and let down.

She then looked into how she would go about getting a refund, but it is not that easy. Then, 20 weeks ago, via the online platform Student Problems, I was interviewed about how a student gets a refund. Obviously, the contract is between the student and the university, so the student has to make a complaint against the university. Then, they have to exhaust the internal process, and only then can they go to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education. Their complaint will be balanced against what the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education says should be the standard of education expected. However, some students did not go along that path. I spoke to the host of the Student Problems website, Sam Rostron, and he asked, “Why don’t you think students are following this route? What are their concerns?” I said that many of them had said to me that they feared reprisals. They were only in their first or second year and they thought they might not get the grade that they should, so they felt that they did not want to upset the apple cart and would not pursue that route. They also said that, in a way, covid was a brand new situation, so they wanted to forgive the university in a way—perhaps it was trying its very best. This was also something that they had wanted to do all their life, so lots of students did not pursue any sort of refund.

Since then we have had the summer recess, and months and months have passed. The students went back to university, having been told they could return. The universities welcomed them and the Government said, “You can go back”. They thought that meant the universities would be up to speed, would be covid-compliant and would be able to teach online. However, that has not proved to be the case.

I am speaking now on behalf of parents from my constituency. Joe Egan from Wilmslow’s son was only at Newcastle University for 48 hours before he was told that all his tutorials and lectures would be online. If he had known that beforehand, he would have taken an Open University degree. Shirley Smith from Alderley Edge has a son who is a fresher at the University of Northampton. She told me that he has only been offered online teaching. She also raised concerns about the evacuation-style plan to get students home for Christmas. Bethan Weston from Wilmslow raised concerns about the mixed standard of lectures, among other issues. Her daughter is in accommodation with 23 others. She has not been able to socialise. She is living in a house, but because there are no communal areas, they are all sitting in the halls and on stairways to speak to one another. She is concerned about the debt, the lockdown and the students’ mental health issues. She said it compares to a prison camp. It is unacceptable. How were young students allowed to go back to university when universities did not have the capability to look after their students? Some of them have literally been locked up in student accommodation.

Another example comes from the Birley campus at Manchester Metropolitan University, posted on the Student Problems website. Some 1,700 students were told to self-isolate for 14 days. How was that news broken to them? They went to leave the campus and were told by security guards that they had to go back inside. There were no emails for a couple of hours. They did not know what was going on. They got no refund for their rent. They all said it was more like Her Majesty’s prison. They were then labelled as super-spreaders and looked down on by the general public. They said that was unfair. They had been told that they could go to university. What else were they to do?

On 11 November, the SAFER—Student Action for a Fair and Educated Response—report came out. It said that our universities have prioritised profit over student welfare, and that the cost of an online honours degree at the Open University would be over £9,000 cheaper at the end of three years. It said there is a lack of adequate support in the halls, of regular testing and even of food. We are talking about vulnerable 18 and 19-year-olds for whom this may be the first time they have moved away from home, and this is how they are being treated.

My question to the Minister come from students in my constituency, parents and SAFER. The university has claimed tuition fees are a Government issue; the Government are saying they are a university issue; people are asking the Government to clarify who is responsible. If both university and Government are responsible, how and when will the issue be resolved? If it is a university issue, what pressure can Government bring to bear on the universities to get this sorted? What meetings are Government Ministers having with university students, so that they can explain their concerns? Can we have a simpler refund process? Finally, can there be an automatic refund for those who were locked down? Universities and Government must do the right thing by our young people and their families.

--- Later in debate ---
Michelle Donelan Portrait Michelle Donelan
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I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate, and I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to a number of the points that he and other hon. Members have made.

I acknowledge the significant impact that covid-19 has had on staff, students and higher education providers. The Government do not for one minute underestimate that. This pandemic has been hard for all of us, but in so many ways young people have been disproportionately impacted. Students have been left facing a number of challenges. I am hugely grateful for the resilience, innovation and dedication shown by staff and students over the past nine months. The constant uncertainty has made things worse, but the improvements in mass testing and constant scientific advances, including a potential vaccine, offer a glimmer of hope.

We have heard some compelling speeches today focusing on the case for a tuition fee refund. I repeat that the Government get how hard the ramifications of covid have been. In fact, they have been at the forefront of my mind throughout. Since March, therefore, I have emphasised the importance of keeping universities open during the pandemic, as I reiterated in my recent letter to higher education providers. We simply cannot ask young people to put their education and lives on hold indefinitely. The human cost of lost opportunity and damaged social mobility would be immense. The Government were elected on a manifesto to level up; curtailing the ambitions and dreams of our young is not the way to achieve that.

We listened to the scientific advice, which informed our higher education guidance at every stage, including the return to university. The hon. Member for Islwyn and many other hon. Members have called for a blanket tuition fee refund, but it should be noted that the Government do not set the minimum level of tuition fees. We set the maximum, and we have been very clear that if higher education providers want to continue to charge the maximum, they must ensure that the quality, quantity and accessibility of tuition is maintained. We have been working closely with the Office for Students to ensure that, and we will continue to do so.

We have heard accounts of students who feel that the quality of their education has declined. My message to them is that there is a system in place that can help. First, a student should pursue the official complaints procedure at their university. If they remain unsatisfied, they should go to the OIA. That can lead to some form of tuition fee refund. Without the first stage, institutions would not have the opportunity for early resolution of complaints with students, so it is important.

I hear the concern, including from my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Esther McVey), that students may be reluctant to come forward. I reassure all students, however, that the OIA’s good practice framework is clear that there must be appropriate levels of confidentiality without disadvantage and that providers should make that clear to all students.

OIA cases will normally be completed within 90 days, and the process is designed to make it simple and easy for students. The form is online. It asks for basic information and a summary of the complaint. The OIA requires the provider rather than the student to send it all the information. Some hon. Members have argued that the policy places too much on the shoulders of students.

Esther McVey Portrait Esther McVey
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As a point of clarification, it will not stay anonymous if the first stage is for the student to go via the university for redress.

Michelle Donelan Portrait Michelle Donelan
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The whole purpose of having that first stage is for the university to have a chance to deal with the complaint, as there might be opportunities to do so that do not include refunds. I was trying to express the fact that, in the formal process with the Office of the Independent Adjudicator, there are protections for students against any potential backlash that might be feared from going against the university. The degree of anonymity is hindered—if it is completely anonymous, it is impossible to pursue a complete complaints process—but there are protections for students.

As I was saying, hon. Members have argued that the policy places too much on the shoulders of students and that we should instead adopt Government finance-backed refunds. I wholeheartedly dispute the suggestion that all students are being let down. Tuition does look different, because we are in the midst of a global pandemic, but different does not have to mean inferior.

Universities have invested heavily in innovative and dynamic learning and have utilised technology. I have seen many examples of interactive lessons that staff have worked tirelessly, hour after hour, to produce. In fact, a recent survey by Unite showed that 81% of students were happy that they did not defer, and four in five agreed that, although it is not how they expected their first university year to be, they valued their time there.

I am not for one moment suggesting that there have not been some institutions, or some faculties within them, that may not have given students the learning they deserve, as we have heard in accounts today. For those students, the process is in place; that is exactly why it was set up. The majority of students, however, have been supported by hard-working staff, who have invested hour after hour to support students in their learning. There has been an enormous effort made throughout the higher education sector to maintain the high quality expected by this Government. In fact, when done well, online learning takes many more hours to produce and costs more, as the fixed costs—including labour—remain the same and are combined with additional technology costs.

Yes, universities are autonomous institutions, but as a Government, we have a responsibility to the millions of students studying across the country to ensure that their education can continue and that it continues in a way that meets the high quality bar that we usually expect, and that they expect.

The findings of the Petitions Committee inquiry were clear that although students who are entitled to a refund should be able to access information about how to claim, a wide-scale refund should not be the way forward, and we agree. A range of guidance for students and providers already exists—from the OFS, the Competition and Markets Authority, the OIA and the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education—and we have been working to highlight and co-ordinate that advice even more for students. Universities must anyway adhere to consumer law and make their complaints process, and the OIA’s process, clear to students. The NUS has promoted this process during the pandemic, as have I, especially on student-facing media.

As the Petitions Committee recommended, we have established a working group that includes the NUS, the OFS, Universities UK, the OIA and the CMA. The OFS is working on a comms campaign, and a new page is now on its website that pulls together existing guidance on consumer issues. The OIA is consulting on new arrangements for dealing with complaints from groups of students, to speed up the process and ensure that those students who have a degree of commonality can be brought together in one complaint. I am also working on additional ways to further promote the rights of students and the processes they should follow, including working with Martin Lewis and his Money Saving Expert team.

Further to the comments made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton, I want every student to know that they do have consumer rights. The CMA produced guidance on this issue earlier in the year and, for higher education providers, it is clear: universities should have been clear before the start of the academic year about what students could expect in these extraordinary circumstances. If students feel they have not got what they expected, they should follow the process. As outlined by the CMA, each student has a contractual agreement, and that agreement will differ per institution, which is another reason why a blanket system of refunds would not necessarily work.

Once again, let me be clear: it is not acceptable for students to receive anything less than the high-quality education they expect from our world-leading sector. A change in the mode of delivery to online or blended learning should not mean that quality declines. This is not a case of “pay the same and get less”; this is about providers changing their mode of delivery in an unprecedented situation to prioritise public health.

Providers will be best placed to be informed about decisions regarding the proportions of online and in-person learning, working with their local Public Health England teams. There are so many examples of innovative providers and the work they have done. I will highlight just a few. The University of Leeds utilised virtual classroom technologies, enabling students in Leeds and those studying remotely to engage together, and this has been seen in many universities. The University of Northampton used webinar software to successfully replicate a mock courtroom scenario, and the University of Sheffield’s faculty of engineering developed an approach to remote teaching of practical elements, shared with the sector. Some universities, such as Cambridge, have sent science, technology, engineering and mathematics students items of lab equipment to work with at home, and there are many, many more examples.

The OFS has stipulated that quality must be maintained and that the conditions of registration must continue to be met. It is directly engaging with those providers that have moved their provision online due to the coronavirus restrictions and is assessing material to check that the quality and quantity of provision are maintained and that it is accessible. Students can raise their concerns directly with the OFS.

However, tuition fees do cover much more than simply teaching: they include the support services that universities offer, such as mental health and wellbeing, as well as the provision of study spaces, library resources and much more. It is clear that these important services must be maintained, especially when students are isolating, in regards to wellbeing, mental health and communications. We as a Government have been very clear about that.

To answer the question asked directly by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton regarding my engagement with students, which was also posed by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy), I have regularly engaged with the NUS. I have engaged with the OFS student panel and with students who are present for the various visits I make on a regular basis, particularly the working groups of care leavers who are students. I have also done a magnitude of student-facing media, answering questions in online forums. I believe that is essential, because I should be speaking to students and the sector, detailing our policy and responding to their queries.

Rather than focusing on wide-scale refunds that in reality would make little difference to the money in students’ pockets—and let us not forget that more than 50% of students never pay back their full student debt—the Government are focusing on the outcomes of the higher education experience. We are focusing on ensuring that the courses lead to qualifications, and working hard so that students are supported and safe. Drawing on the expertise of the higher education taskforce that I set up, we have been providing robust public health advice and guidance to universities, so I dispute the claim made earlier in the debate that the Government have not given clarity to universities.

From the start of the pandemic my priority has been to protect student mental health and wellbeing, and we have asked providers to prioritise that. We have worked closely with the Office for Students to create the Student Space to address the additional mental health challenges that covid presents. That is a £3 million project, to be delivered with Student Minds, and it has recently been extended. That is on top of wider Government support that includes £9 million for charities. We monitor it all the time. My heart goes out to all the families who have experienced student suicide in the past few months, and to the friends and all the people who knew those students. It is an awful tragedy, and no words can give an account of how I, or other hon. Members here today, feel about it.

The hon. Members for Leicester East (Claudia Webbe) and for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle raised the issue of student hardship and the £256 million fund. We have clarified that providers can use that money for the entire academic year. It is for student hardship—for digital devices, for mental health support—so it is right that we keep referring to it. We were quite up front at the beginning about how it could be utilised. Before the beginning of the academic year—before August—we also outlined that £23 million per month could be utilised. I am afraid I shall continue to use that figure, because it was for the entire academic year. Student hardship is something that we continue to monitor, and each university normally has its own hardship pots as well. The Department has also allocated £195 million for technology devices for educational settings, for which care leavers at higher education providers qualify.