The closure of colleges and universities because of Covid-19 has hit students hard. Many have been in touch with me, desperately worried about the situation they find themselves in, through no fault of their own.
Universities have tried to minimise the impact of the closure on students’ studies by switching to online learning. This is welcome, but it can’t fully compensate for face-to-face learning, fieldwork and the full student experience, particularly for overseas students. Students from low-income backgrounds facing mounting debt may not be in the same position to engage in home study as effectively as others.
There’s understandable concern among students about the impact on their examinations, particularly for those who will be graduating this summer.
As a Vice Chair of Parliament’s all party group on students, I am calling cross party for a package of measures to help students through this challenging time, including for Universities UK, the Office for Students and the QAA to secure agreement across the sector to give a students a choice of
- Being awarded a degree based on prior achievement
- Sitting exams remotely within the normal timescale
- Postponing exams until the autumn
- Resitting the year without further fees and with additional financial support
Most students who have been able to do so have returned to their family homes and vacated their student accommodation. But the issue of rent refunds hasn’t been fully resolved. There seems to be a range of responses, from both university and private sector providers. I contacted some universities and private student accommodation providers on behalf of constituents to ask for rent rebates for some of March through to the summer in the first instance.
Sussex and Brighton universities have responded positively and are giving students who have left university-run accommodation a rent holiday, but students living in privately-rented housing are really struggling. Some landlords have agreed to full or partial refunds, others have offered the option of ending tenancies from specified dates, while some have refused any refund at all because of contractual agreements.
While different providers will be in different financial positions, it is not acceptable that students should be penalised for complying with government rules to stay at home. Students should be fully reimbursed for their rent from the day they vacated their accommodation – and the Government needs to step in and reimburse landlords.
I am also backing NUS calls for a no-penalty early releases from tenancy contracts or rent obligations for the current and next academic year; the cancellation of rent arrears for the duration of the crisis; and the subsidising, significantly reducing or waiving of rents entirely for 6 months for those affected by the crisis. Again, the Government needs to do the right thing here and meet the costs of protecting students.
Many students rely on part-time jobs to fund their studies. These jobs are mostly in sectors like hospitality which have been forced to close because of social distancing rules. While other workers have been able to apply for Universal Credit, and the Government’s decision to lift the income floor will help many in part-time employment, students are not able to claim. This may be right in normal times, but these are not normal times and I am calling on the Government to suspend this rule so that students can submit claims for UC during the Covid-19 crisis.
Student poverty is exacerbated by tuition fees and loans, so my campaigning for free higher education continues unabated. I have signed a cross-party letter to the Chancellor calling for the creation of a Covid-19 student maintenance grant for low-income students and urged ministers to introduce a temporary capped universal basic income for every UK resident.
I have also highlighted to Government the importance of closing the funding black hole faced by our higher education institutions. Brighton and Hove is home to two brilliant universities, which play a vital role in our local economy and communities – their future needs to be secure.