MPs call for student Covid disruption funding in England to be doubled

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A cross-party group of MPs and peers is calling for the government to more than double financial support for university students in England whose education has been disrupted by the pandemic, potentially amounting to £700m.

The fund would provide support for students experiencing hardship as a result of lost income from term-time jobs in retail and hospitality. It would also cover rent rebates for accommodation that has not been used due to lockdown measures requiring students to remain at the addresses they returned to over the Christmas break.

The group further recommended the creation of a new learning remediation fund to cover additional losses from missed teaching, networking, field trips, access to specialist facilities and so on.

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A report by the group report states: “We believe that the priority is to provide students with the financial assistance that they need now … We feel that this approach is fairer and more effective than any general reduction in tuition fees. We believe that an additional sum more than doubling existing student premium funding, of £256m, would be required. Applying the Welsh approach would suggest a figure around £700m for England.”

The report is the result of an inquiry responding to calls for compensation launched by the all-party parliamentary group for students, chaired by the Labour MP Paul Blomfield and involving two Conservative former higher education ministers, David Willetts, the architect of the £9,250 tuition fee system, and the peer Tim Boswell.

The inquiry heard from universities, accommodation providers, private landlords, the National Union of Students (NUS), 47 students’ unions and 294 individual students across the UK.

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Since the pandemic began, the Westminster government has increased student premium funds, which are targeted at those students who need additional financial and educational support, by £20m. However, since the fund was cut by £16m in May 2020, this represents just a £4m real-terms rise.

The Westminster government’s support for the 1.95 million students in England has fallen behind that in Scotland and Wales, where education is devolved. Wales, which has 132,200 students, has earmarked £80m of funding for student hardship, while Scotland announced on Tuesday it would provide its 253,475 students with an additional £30m of hardship funding on top of an earlier £37m package. Northern Ireland has nearly doubled its hardship support package for its 55,755 students to £5.6m.

There is growing anger among students who feel that they were lured on to campuses with promises of a conventional experience to shore up university finances. A network of students organising rent strikes at universities across the country estimate that about 25,000 students, or 5% of all those in halls, have withheld or plan to withhold rent payments.

Three-quarters of students who responded to an NUS survey in November said their finances has suffered due to the pandemic, while over two-thirds of renters said they were worried about covering their rent.

There has been a patchy response to compensation across universities. The BBC reported on Wednesday that some institutions were offering 100% refunds, while others were offering percentage discounts or fixed payments.

Launching the report, Blomfield said: “This generation of university students will be those most affected by the pandemic over their lives and they’ll do more to pay off the national debt than those at work currently.

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“It’s a call for major action by the government, but it’s essential to protect future generations and our universities. I hope the universities minister will back these proposals.”