Labour sets out 7 tests to safeguard universities and students from Covid

Elliot Chappell

Labour has urged the government to “ensure universities and students are safeguarded from the economic impact of this crisis” by meeting its newly released “seven key tests for higher education”.

In a letter to the Education Secretary this afternoon, Labour’s Emma Hardy told the minister that a “thriving higher education sector is vital to help our country build back better from the Covid-19 crisis”.

The shadow further education and universities minister spoke to students today ahead of the launch of Labour’s ‘7 Key Higher Education Tests’ campaign to “hear about the challenges they have been facing in light of the pandemic”.

The opposition party has said that its seven tests are “designed to create a comprehensive solution” for students and universities in the higher education sector. They are as follows:

  1. “No university should be allowed to go bust and there must be equality of opportunity for all in every region;
  2. “Reduce barriers to learning;
  3. “Protect and enhance domestic and international research;
  4. “Enhance a cooperative and coordinated higher education sector across the whole of the UK;
  5. “Prevent further financial hardship for current students;
  6. “Provide comprehensive support for 2020 final year students; and
  7. “Promote universities as civic institutions.”

Commenting on the challenges currently faced by the university sector, Hardy said: “No country has ever increased economic activity through reducing access to higher education.

“This government cannot allow any university to fail and it must ensure everyone in every region with the desire to learn has access to a university.

“By passing these seven key tests the government will show commitment to our higher education sector, to our young people, and to our regional economies. Meeting these tests will help guarantee a fairer society and allow aspiration to flourish.

“I have written to the Secretary of State today to ask him to show support for every person who aspires to attend university and to protect the equality of opportunity for everyone in every region as part of Labour’s ‘7 Key Higher Education Tests’ campaign’.”

Labour has highlighted that many universities are facing significant difficulties in the pandemic, and that students looking for employment in 2020 face similar hardship. However it said that the support from the government has “been lacking”.

The party described what it called “shockwaves” sent through the higher education sector as a result of Covid-19, outlining potential losses of £6bn and 30,000 direct redundancies, plus a further 30,000 job losses in local economies.

Below is the full text of the letter sent to the Education Secretary.

Dear Secretary of State,

A thriving higher education sector is vital to help our country build back better from the Covid-19 crisis.

It is a matter for concern then, that your recent public comments have thrown doubt on your commitment to the sector and the benefits it brings to all parts of society and that the Higher Education Restructuring Regime plans begin by explicitly stating a willingness on behalf of yourself to see individual universities fail.

Higher education provides the highly trained people our country needs to succeed: nurses, doctors and health and social care workers for the NHS; teachers; researchers; engineers; linguists; chemists; artists; musicians; mathematicians; I am sure you could make your own additions to this far from exhaustive list. No country has ever increased its prosperity by sending fewer people to university.

The Labour Party is setting seven tests for the government to meet that will ensure all our country’s universities remain secure and ready for the challenges ahead. They will guarantee all those attending get the support they need to succeed and that a degree course is available to anyone with the aspirations to study one: whatever their background or circumstances and wherever they live.

1. No university should be allowed to go bust and there must be equality of opportunity for all in every region. The loss of any individual university will create dead zones for local access to higher education and no university should be allowed to go bust. Everyone everywhere has the right to the education and training they need. Many local economies rely on the contributions of their university and 30,000 associated jobs are under threat.

2. Reduce barriers to learning. Widening Participation activities ground to a halt under Covid-19, putting access for a whole cohort at risk. BAME students have a consistently poorer experience of university. Part-time student numbers have been dramatically declining. These issues need urgently addressing.

3. Protect and enhance domestic and international research. International student fees cross subsidise research to the tune of £4.2 billion. Their numbers are set to take a big hit. The government looks set to reject participation in Horizon Europe and the funding and international partnerships it brings with no proposals to make good the losses. The UK is a research powerhouse, but that position is now at risk.

4. Enhance a co-operative and co-ordinated Higher Education sector across the whole of the UK. Government must take responsibility for the sector as a whole and ensure any future decisions take into consideration all stakeholders and the different circumstances across the entire UK. Its use of Longitudinal Educational Outcomes (LEO) data focussing on post-graduate salaries discriminates against some regions and presents a skewed picture of the true worth of those universities to their communities.

5. Prevent further financial hardship for current students. No student should get into further debt because of Covid19. The government has piled enough on their shoulders. It should guarantee university hardship funds are sufficiently resourced and accessible to all who need them.

6. Provide comprehensive support for 2020 final year students. The jobs market they enter will be severely depressed. They cannot be left to flounder. Proposals 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. So far the government has offered nothing.

7. Promote universities as civic institutions. Universities have a vital community and development role to play in helping to build back better. Many are already actively engaged in the task. Government must insist every institution develop a clear strategy, with the active participation of local partners, aimed at meeting the needs and opportunities of their area.

The future prosperity and safety of our nation depends on the education and skills of its people. True equality of opportunity is the cornerstone of a fair society. I believe that meeting these tests will help guarantee that future and allow aspiration to flourish.

I look forward to your reply.

Yours sincerely,

Emma Hardy

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