Rupa Huq

Rupa Huq criticises decision to delay students’ return to campus

Ealing Central and Acton MP Rupa Huq has criticised the Government’s decision to delay the return of students to university campuses in England until at least 17 May.

During an Urgent Question session in Parliament on 16 April, the Universities Minister Michelle Donelan MP confirmed that a return to in-person learning for around a million students would be put back until mid-May at the earliest, alongside stage three of the Government’s roadmap for unlocking.

Rupa Huq, who was employed as a university lecturer over three decades prior to being elected in 2015, questioned the postponement, pointing out that it would be “too late” for many students whose teaching finishes prior to or around the 17 May date, with exams to follow soon after.

Speaking in the virtual chamber from her home in Ealing, the MP drew attention to the inconsistencies of the Government’s position. Students in England are still barred from in-person teaching while students in Wales have been able to return this week with mixed teaching delivery methods.

In response to Huq’s question, the Universities Minister cited “the mass movement of students and the formation of new households,” stating: “Many things are indeed opening up, but most of them are outside and involve social mixing outside, and the key thing is that they do not involve the formation of new households.”

To watch the exchange, see below:

“Stark discrepancy” between English and Welsh student experiences

Rupa Huq afterwards said:

“The Minister completely failed to answer my question of why students doing the same course in England and Wales are getting such a different educational experience – a stark discrepancy. Plus she completely fails to understand that at institutions like Ealing’s own University of West London [UWL] and many other London universities, this is not an issue as most students live in the parental home anyway. Not every student inhabits ivory towers and hangs out with the Bullingdon club.”

This was confirmed by Professor Anthony Woodman, Deputy Vice-Chancellor of UWL, who said 93 per cent of UWL students commute to and from their homes within London. “Mass migration is not an issue for us,” Woodman told us. “Safe and reliable public transport supporting their commute is the biggest priority for our students.”

“Unfortunately for all our students the delay in resuming face-to-face for non-practical elements until the 17 May means there will be no opportunity for much needed in-person teaching prior to the critical end of year or even worse graduating assessments.”

English students ‘stuck’ learning online

A survey from the Higher Education Policy Institute found that two-thirds of students have been staying in their term-time accommodation even if studying online, suggesting there would be less of a mass migration than at the start of the academic year. This includes Harry Wild, a third-year PPE student Rupa cited in her question. Originally from Ealing, Harry has been studying at Southampton University, but has been stuck learning online since Christmas.

Harry’s mother Natasha, said the Minister’s response to Huq’s question was “hugely disappointing.”

“My son has, in spite of very challenging circumstances on campus, continued to try and apply himself and make friends. To hear that you can have haircuts (indoors), go to gyms (indoors) and have very close contact driving lessons makes this decision even more ridiculous.

“Where’s the science behind this damaging decision? My son is baffled, confused and stressed by all this. It’s not fair ‒ we’re not putting university students on the same footing as school pupils.”

Rupa Huq told us: “A student can now get a tattoo, have their hair done and go to the pub ‒ all on the same day if they so choose. But that same student is unable to get an in-person education, even though they have paid thousands for housing, tuition and services they haven’t been able to fully access.”

Labour’s Shadow Universities Minister Matt Western MP was unimpressed with the Minister’s announcement of an extra £15m for hardship funds, suggesting it did not go far enough:

“The Government is offering students pitiful levels of support which trail far behind the Welsh Labour Government ‒ students must not pay the price for the Government’s incompetent response to this pandemic.”

Huq has asked the Government to provide the scientific evidence behind the decision.

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