Keir Starmer’s spokesperson today declined to back tuition fee or rent refund requests by university students after they were encouraged to move to campuses but soon locked down in their accommodation.
Asked whether the Labour leader sympathises with university students demanding refunds, his spokesperson replied: “First and foremost, the immediate priority is making sure every student gets a good education, and that means them being able to learn safely either in person or remotely.
“That has got to be the immediate priority. And obviously we understand there is deep anxiety and frustration for students and also for their parents across the country. Our immediate priority is making sure they get the best education they can right now.”
Pressed further on whether he sympathises with calls for requests, the spokesperson said: “We have a huge amount of sympathy for what students are having to go through and also not to forget their parents as well. It’s a hugely anxious time for them.”
Starmer will be joining Kate Green on a Zoom call on Thursday with students who have recently started university and with their parents, where they will discuss the challenges that they are facing during the pandemic.
Asked whether the opposition leader backs the University and College Union call for online learning to become the default now, Starmer’s spokesperson said a move toward more remote methods “seems to be a sensible step”.
He said: “It depends on each university. But it’s clear that we should do all we can to reduce transmissions of the virus on university campuses. Moving more learning online seems to be a sensible step, particularly for those universities with high levels of the virus in those areas.
“But where learning does move online, every student must be able to access it… The government must ensure that every student can learn remotely if that is what is introduced.”
Covid-19 outbreaks prompted by the start of university terms this month have led to thousands of students being shut into their halls of residence, including at Manchester Metropolitan University and in Edinburgh and Glasgow.
Robert Halfon, the Tory chair of the education select committee, has called on universities to consider discounts for students who are not being taught face-to-face. But Labour has emphasised that universities are in financial trouble.
Responding to journalists’ queries after Prime Minister’s Questions, Starmer’s spokesperson was also asked about reports that Priti Patel looked at the idea of processing asylum seekers on a volcanic island in the South Atlantic.
Asked for Starmer’s response to the suggestion of sending asylum seekers to Ascension Island, he said: “It’s ludicrous and inhumane. It’s completely impractical and it would be hugely expensive for taxpayers. It’s a ridiculous idea from an incompetent government.”
The government allowed the emergency evictions ban – put in place to protect renters during the coronavirus pandemic – to end on September 20th, despite charities, housing organisations and councils warning that it would increase homelessness.
Momentum has launched an evictions resistance campaign, in which activists will be mobilised and encouraged to peacefully resist attempts by bailiffs to gain entry to their homes, while the Labour left group calls on landlords to forgive arrears.
Asked whether Starmer would support peaceful resistance to bailiffs now that the coronavirus eviction ban has been lifted, the spokesperson said: “The solution to this is for the government to listen to the demands we made a couple of weeks ago.
“We didn’t support the eviction ban being lifted. We said additional reforms need to be introduced. If we’re going to stop mass evictions, it’s for the government to take national action to do that and it still has the power to do so.”
The Labour leader’s spokesperson was also asked why Labour continues to support Covid restrictions despite describing them as confusing. He replied: “At the moment what the country wants to see is everyone come together and try to defeat this virus.”
At PMQs this afternoon, Starmer criticised the “whack-a-mole” strategy and highlighted that 48 areas have so far been placed under local lockdown restrictions but only one area has been released from those measures.