Universities and their staff have worked hard to offer the best possible learning experience over the past 16 months, but clearly in a pandemic the best possible inevitably falls short of what might otherwise have been available.
Although the blended learning ahead may be partial, and flexible, Ministers must assist universities by providing as soon as possible clear guidance to both institutions and students on what to expect in the year ahead, as too often advice and guidance have been offered too late.
Such guidance is necessary so that they can plan properly and, for instance, so that students can make informed decisions about accommodation.
The Government must also support universities in addressing those areas where the student experience has been diminished over the last year, and it is not just about teaching.
A recent survey reported that up to a quarter of students do not have friends at university, over half feel lonely every day, and four in 10 reported a deterioration in their mental health over the last year. Those challenges are beyond the capacity of conventional or established university services to deal with.
Alongside the mental health impact, we also need to consider the fact that not all learning can take place online. An all-party group ran an inquiry at the start of this year that took evidence from students all around the UK and on a wide variety of programmes.
We expected those studying some practical subjects to talk about the limitations of online teaching, but we were struck by the breadth of the problem.
One student, for example, told us: “As a student of an art subject (fashion), I have found it incredibly difficult to get the same level of teaching during this pandemic as I would in normal circumstances.
“Without access to studio spaces and essential equipment such as sewing machines, how am I supposed to learn how to draft patterns and make garments?”
Although, obviously and rightly, public health has come first throughout the pandemic, we need to address the diminished learning experience and ensure that practical skills are not significantly impacted in the long term.
We therefore recommended to the Government that they establish a Covid student learning remediation fund to assist universities to provide access to experiences, specialist facilities and equipment, for skills development and more – those things that students have missed out on during the pandemic.
We should also recognise that many new students starting university this year will have missed school experiences and learning, which will need to be bolstered by an enhanced offer when they arrive at university in September.
The fund that we recommended should both enable student participation and support additional university costs, recognising the pressures on staff and the workloads that they face.
As vaccinations rise and universities prepare for more in-person learning, the Government will need to support them in addressing the lost learning experiences.
I was disappointed that Ministers have not yet acted on our recommendation, just as they have fallen well short on the hardship support that we felt was necessary, but as we look forward to the next academic year, they have a fresh chance to establish such a fund.
Throughout the pandemic, students have sadly been treated as an afterthought by Ministers. They have been forced to pay for accommodation that they were not permitted to access because of Covid restrictions, they have lost crucial income to support them at university because of jobs lost in hospitality and retail, and their experience has been diminished through limited online learning.
All of this has meant that students have felt neglected. Ministers now have an opportunity to put this right, and I hope that they will do so.
Paul Blomfield is Labour MP for Sheffield Central. He spoke in a parliamentary debate on education, this is an edited version.
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