20 April 2020: Challenges Presented by Covid-19

Secretariat 28 May 2020

All-Party Parliamentary University Group Meeting on 'the challenges Covid-19 presents to the higher education sector'

20 April 2020 15:00-16:30



Daniel Zeichner MP, Chair of the APPUG


Professor Debra Humphris, University of Brighton

Professor Andrew Wathey, University of Northumbria

Professor Stephen Toope, University of Cambridge

Professor Malcolm Press, Manchester Metropolitan University

Professor Gerry McCormac, University of Stirling

This virtual meeting provided an opportunity for parliamentary members of the group to hear directly from vice-chancellors about the challenges Covid-19 poses to universities, and the way in which they are supporting students and wider national efforts to tackle the virus. Contributing vice-chancellors were selected based on their membership of the APPUG’s Council.

Professor Debra Humphris, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Brighton, gave a high-level assessment of the likely impact of the pandemic on the higher education sector, stressing universities’ value to the economy in terms of job creation, driving regeneration and social mobility and international influence.
Universities could play a central role in regenerating the economy and training the future workforce, but their ability to do so would be limited without additional support. Stressing the financial impact of the virus, she stated that across the sector £6.9billion would be lost if there is a 100% reduction in international student enrolments for 2020/21. The government could not fully replace lost income and therefore universities would be reducing costs, increasing efficiency and moderating certain behaviours.
She gave an overview of the package of financial sustainability measures proposed by Universities UK (UUK), and said it should be seen in the context of longer-term government policy, particularly around higher level skills, research and ensuring value to the taxpayer.

Turning to the sector’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, Professor Humphris praised the speed at which universities had moved teaching online but acknowledged the difficulties assessing certain practical subjects. ‘Digital poverty’ of students was a problem, but many universities were providing laptops and dongles.
On universities’ contribution to tackling the pandemic she spoke about the work of final year medical, nursing, biomedical and social care students and thanked the regulators for the flexibility shown. Universities played an important role as anchor institutions within their communities, highlighted by efforts to house NHS workers and the homeless during the pandemic and their work producing PPE and loaning equipment.

Professor Andrew Wathey, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Northumbria, said support for students was the biggest area of activity since Covid-19 forced universities to change the way they operated. Not all students were able to return home (15% remained in halls at Northumbria), and examples of student support included:
• financial support for students from countries with limited online banking
• work to repatriate students on exchanges or placements
• releasing students from third term rent charges
• work with the OfS to identify students most at risk of mental ill health

He stressed that essay mills and grade inflation were important and ongoing concerns. Speaking as recent interim chair of the Students Loans Company (SLC), Professor Wathey stressed the SLC was operating at scale from home, and had resumed normal service. Payments to students and
universities had been a priority and, for liquidity reasons, UUK and DfE were discussing adjusting the profile of payments so universities can access a larger proportion of their finances earlier.

Professor Stephen Toope, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, said the value of research was being recognised more than ever and that research and innovation would play a huge role in rebooting the UK economy. Successful research teams were comprised of talent at all levels and this would evaporate without immediate support.

He then focused on the widening participation agenda which he thought would face additional pressures due to the pandemic. He gave examples including:
• the pausing of face-to-face outreach activities
• the potential for predicted A Level grades to negatively affect disadvantaged and BAME students
• weaker schools being less capable of providing online teaching
Professor Malcolm Press, Vice-Chancellor of Manchester Metropolitan University, focused on how the government could help with the challenge of boosting international student enrolments at low cost.

Applying for a Tier 4 visa was expensive and bureaucratic; the visa regime should be liberalised and the introduction of the new post-study work route brought forward in order to make the UK a more attractive study destination. Work could be done through the FCO to encourage countries such as China and Malaysia to recognise online degrees. A broader debate should take place about the importance of international students to the various sectors of the economy including transport, leisure, retail and hospitality he stressed.
Professor Gerry McCormac, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Stirling, confirmed that Scottish institutions fully supported the Universities UK proposed package of stability measures. Particularly how to mitigate against the loss of income from international students, which Scottish institutions were particularly reliant on, and future investment in research as this would be a vehicle to national recovery.

He spoke about the differences in the higher education system in Scotland and stressed that universities were the main high wage employer in many parts of Scotland. A large fraction of university expenditure was on salaries and therefore any financial difficulties would likely result in job losses.