Thank you to those who have contacted me about post-16 education and safety measures for students and staff in the coronavirus pandemic.
These are uncertain times and measures have been introduced to save lives which have disrupted our normal way of life. I know that the 2020/21 year has not gone the way students will have wanted or expected.
I recognise the frustration many students will be feeling at not being able to return to university after Christmas for face to face tuition. However, in light of the rapid increase in coronavirus cases, and the strong evidence that the new variant is more transmissible, I do think it is vital we do all we can to curtail its growth.
I am pleased that the Student Loans Company (SLC) published guidance for existing and new students on what support is available to them during this period of uncertainty. Existing students received their scheduled instalment of their maintenance loan at the planned start of their summer term, regardless of whether their university or provider had made alternative arrangements for teaching. In addition, ministers have asked universities to prioritise the mental health and wellbeing of students during this period and have enabled them to use funding, worth up to £256 million for the academic year 2020/21 starting from August, to go towards student hardship funds and mental health support.
It is for universities and private accommodation providers to make their own decisions about charging rents to absent students. Accommodation providers have been encouraged to consider the fairness of their arrangements and to clearly communicate their policies to students. In this spirit I was pleased to hear that a number of universities and large companies waived rents for the summer term or released students early from their contracts. I also know that some universities offered temporary rental rebates in cases where there were coronavirus outbreaks in student halls.
Students who are tenants with individual private landlords can discuss the possibility of an early release from their lease. If they face financial hardship and struggle to pay their rent, support is available: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/government-support-available-for-landlords-…. In the first instance, a student should speak to their landlord if they think they will have difficulty meeting a rental payment, and in this unique context, tenants and landlords are encouraged to work together to put in place a rent payment scheme.
It was very welcome that further education providers were able to reopen fully during the autumn national restrictions. I know that this was a challenging time for all in the sector, and so it is right that a wide range of support has been rolled out to support the FE sector. I understand Ministers have frequently engaged with FE providers to monitor the level of training that they are able to deliver and have been actively working with them to address issues. Guidance for FE providers on how they should operate during coronavirus is regularly updated and can be found here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publions/coronavirus-covid-19-maintaining….
A range of flexibilities have been introduced, including allowing remote teaching, allowing furloughed workers to continue the ‘off-the-job’ training element of their apprenticeship and increased flexibility around end point assessments, so that as many learners as possible can successfully complete their courses. Funding allocations for providers in 2020/21 have been confirmed and grant funding to the FE sector has been protected, worth about £3 billion for a full year.
For students it is important that employers, especially small businesses, can take on new apprentices this year. I am pleased therefore to hear that Ministers will continue to support them to ensure this can continue. In addition, a new online Skills Toolkit has been launched to provide free high quality digital and numeracy courses, the skills most sought after by employers. This can be found here - https://nationalcareers.service.gov.uk/find-a-course/the-skills-toolkit
Alongside all this additional support, I very much welcome that from April next year, adults without a full qualification at Level 3 (A-level equivalent) will be able to benefit from almost 400 free courses. The fully-funded courses, ranging from engineering to healthcare to conservation, will be available to adults without a full qualification at Level 3 to help them gain in-demand skills and open up further job opportunities. A new flexible, lifelong loan entitlement to four years of post-18 education is also going to be introduced, so adults will be able to get ahead in the labour market and train, retrain and upskill throughout their lifetimes.
Finally, the Prime Minister has announced an Opportunity Guarantee so that every young person has access to an offer of work-based training, work experience or training programme, to ensure they can maintain the skills and confidence they need to find the job that is right for them.