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Government looking at support for university students, says Johnson

Government looking at support for university students, says Johnson

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has told students that they will be hearing from the Education Secretary about how the Government intends to support them in the coming weeks.

Mr Johnson faced a question regarding university students during a Coronavirus press conference from Downing Street on Thursday.

Steven from Sheffield asked the following question, which was to put to the Prime Minister on Thursday evening;

"University students are being encouraged to not return to rented term-time addresses and have not received anywhere near the same quality of service that they would of received were it not for the pandemic. Can the government outline then, the ways it intends to support university students over the coming weeks.

Boris Johnson responded by saying that he thought the government needed to 'look very hard' at the situation;

"Thanks very much Steven, this was a question I've been asked repeatedly in the course of the last few days and I think that we need to look very hard at the deal that students are getting Steven, and we need to see what more we can do frankly to support students and to help them in what has been a very very difficult time. You know, of course, they're not able to go back to their universities except for a very very few key practical courses and I know how frustrating that is and I know the financial frustrations that that entails and I can tell you, Steven, that we're looking at that now and you'll be hearing more about that from the Education Secretary."

Pressure has been growing on the Government in recent days to increase support available for students, with many students being advised to stay away from their universities and only being delivered limited online teaching due to the current lockdown.

During Mr Johnson's address to the country on Monday to announce the new lockdown, many students felt forgotten after there was no mention of universities.

A petition on Parliament's website calling for tuition fees to be reduced to £3,000 this year has so far being signed by nearly half a million people. The petition reads, 'Call on the government to consider holding debates in Parliament between MPs and university students to raise/discuss issues that affect them. It will allow students to voice their opinions and concerns about tuition fees of £9250 a year which are too high, particularly as grants have been removed'

Asked about the petition and the situation surrounding universities on Wednesday, a Department for Education spokesperson told The Speaker,

“We understand this has been a very difficult time for students, which is why we have prioritised their education and wellbeing from the start of this pandemic. We recently announced up to £20 million to help students most in need of support in these exceptional circumstances, in addition to an existing £256 million universities can use to help those in financial hardship.

“Universities are responsible for their fees, but the Government has been clear if universities want to continue charging the maximum amount permitted, they are expected to maintain quality and academic standards and the quantity of tuition should not drop. They should seek to ensure all students, regardless of their background, can access their studies remotely."

The Prime Minister's answer to the question on Thursday regarding support for university students indicates that the Government may soon announce further support for students, though it is unclear as to what this could entail.

Many students will be keen for a reduction in student accommodation fees, with many students currently not in their normal term-time residences due to government guidance.

Recently, students have started 'Rent Strikes' at many universities, demanding a reduction to their term-time accommodation fees while they are asked to stay put in their current location. Students are advised to only travel back to their term-time accommodation if they study one of a limited number of practical courses listed by the Government, or if they need to do so for personal reasons, for support with mental health or to access appropriate accommodation with study space that is unavailable in their current location.

Asked about student concerns over being asked to stay away from their time accommodation, a Department for Education spokesperson said on Wednesday, “We encourage Universities and private accommodation providers to be fair, clear and have the interests of students at heart.”

Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, National Union of Students' UK Vice President (Higher Education) has though called for student renters to be offered refunds as part of legislation, as has happened in other parts of the UK.

“The government’s ‘student travel window’ told students to leave their term-time accommodation by 9 December 2020 and students are now being told not to return until at least mid-February and likely beyond. It is simply unacceptable that students are being told to not live in housing they have paid for, on public health grounds, yet are receiving no government support. All student renters must now be offered rent refunds and the option of leaving their tenancy early, if universities and landlords need financial support to make this happen then government must step-in. Scotland legislated to do this, Westminster must now follow.”

Many universities had been delivering a blended learning approach before Christmas, with some online and face-to-face teaching, however, the new lockdown has seen teaching moved solely online for most students. 

The new lockdown was announced by Boris Johnson on Monday, with cases of COVID-19 increasingly rapidly across the UK. On Thursday, the UK reported a further 52,618 cases of the virus, while a further 1,162 people are confirmed to have died in the UK within 28 days of a positive COVID-19 test.

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