Education and skills
Before becoming an MP I spent most of my life working in education and it has been important to me since I was elected – and I work closely with schools, colleges and both universities in Sheffield.
I represent more students than any other MP and am Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Students, which I set up to give further and higher education students a voice in Parliament. I also co-chair the APPG on International Students, which I established with Lord Bilimoria, and am Secretary of the APPG on Universities.
I work closely with local schools and voice their concerns with Government. Our schools face a funding crisis and I’ve been campaigning in Parliament for the money that they need. I have pressed the Education Secretary on the distribution of funding, the problems facing our primary schools, the inadequate resources available for support for pupils with special education needs and disabilities and need for a national strategy, and the way that creative subjects have been sidelined.
At Prime Minister’s Questions I challenged Theresa May to listen to local headteachers’ concerns and provide the funding that they need, and I brought a delegation of Sheffield headteachers to make their case to the Schools Minister in 2019. I have also called on the Government to address the educational attainment gap between children in Yorkshire and London.
I hold regular Big Conversation meetings in local schools, listening to students about their concerns they want me to raise in Parliament. My contribution to the debate on Johnson’s Queen’s Speech was based on their concerns, and I’ve also pressed Ministers on issues ranging from the move away from coursework to exam-only assessments to the need for better mental health provision for young people.
I have kept in touch with local headteachers throughout the coronavirus crisis and raised their concerns with Ministers, as well as pressing for school staff vaccination as part of measures to ensure schools are kept safe. I pressed Education Secretary Gavin Williamson to accept teacher-assessed grades during the A-level debacle last August and forced him to make a statement suspending SATS, as well as expressing my concerns on BTEC examinations, earlier this year.
I have regularly spoken in Parliament about the impact of further education cuts to Sheffield College and the sector, as well as arranging meetings with Ministers to secure additional finance. I have supported the #LoveOurColleges campaign and pressed for proper funding for further education, including writing to the Education Minister to press for the Augar Review’s recommendations for Further Education to be implemented.
At a parliamentary lobby in Westminster I warned the Government of the threat from cuts to adult education and training. I have also campaigned on specific issues like cuts to English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) courses and bursaries for teachers of the deaf, who play a vital role in helping people play a full part in society.
I was delighted to be voted 2015’s most inspiring leader in Higher Education, as a result of my work championing universities and students. Both Sheffield’s universities are in my constituency, and I meet regularly with their staff and students to bring their concerns to Parliament. My work on universities has included supporting investment in university science and research, defending the Disabled Student’s Allowance, winning changes for international students, and scrutinising the Higher Education and Research Act (read more here). I pushed the Government for a comprehensive review of the student finance system and called for the Government to protect higher education funding following the Augar Report.
As a Shadow Brexit Minister, safeguarding universities’ funding, research and access to talent post-Brexit was a key priority (read more here). For example, I spoke from the front-bench in a Parliamentary debate on Brexit and higher education, challenged the Government on fee status for EEA nationals and have repeatedly pressed Ministers to protect the UK’s place in EU research programmes.
I have worked closely with our universities through the pandemic and co-ordinated a letter from Sheffield MPs and Peers to Education Secretary Gavin Williamson seeking support for the sector.
I also reminded the Government of its promises on research funding in a debate on the Advance Research and Innovation Agency Bill.
You can find out more about my work representing students here.
Innovation and skills
As a member of Parliament’s Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) Select Committee between 2010 and 2016 I scrutinised the Business Department’s action on education and skills. As a committee we undertook inquiries into teaching quality at universities, business-university collaboration, the digital economy, apprenticeships and adult literacy and numeracy. I also led a debate in Parliament about the importance of university science and research to regional economies. I was also a member of the Committee on Education, Skills and the Economy – an innovative joint BIS and Education Select Committees group, which is focusing on how both the BIS and Education Departments can work together to promote education and skills.
Sheffield Central constituency has the largest number of students in the country by far, so student issues are high on my agenda. As well as our two universities, I keep in touch with students at Sheffield College and local schools.
I’m Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Students, which I set up to provide students with a voice in Parliament, and Co-Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for International Students. I’m also Secretary of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Universities, and in 2015 I was voted ‘Most inspiring leader in Higher Education’ in the Guardian’s University Awards for my work in Parliament on student and university issues.
I was closely involved with challenging and scrutinising the Higher Education and Research Act – you can read more here.
Students and Covid
I have raised students’ concerns throughout the pandemic, co-ordinating a cross-party letter signed by 110 MPs and Peers to the Universities Minister calling for action on exams, accommodation costs and financial difficulties at an early stage of the crisis. Later I launched an APPG inquiry into the case for compensation for university students, which produced this report.
I pressed our recommendations in Parliament through an Urgent Question to the Universities Minister and to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury (see here). I have used every opportunity to make the case for substantial hardship funds, a ‘Learning Remediation Fund’ and an extension of studentships for postgraduate research students.
Fees and funding
I spoke (and voted) against the Tory-led Coalition Government’s tuition fee rise to £9,000 and am opposed to creating a market in higher education. I have called for a complete overhaul of the current unfair and unsustainable student finance system (watch here) – criticising in particular the previous freeze of the repayment threshold at £21,000, and the scrapping of bursaries for nurses, midwives and other allied health professionals.
I convened APPG meetings in Parliament for students and MPs to talk with Philip Augar, who was appointed by the Prime Minister to review post-18 education funding; with an initial meeting as he was preparing his inquiry and a further event after his report was published. I have welcomed parts of his report, particularly on further education, but I oppose the way it shifts costs to graduates.
I wrote to the previous Government to press them to implement the recommendations on increasing funding for Further Education colleges and reforming student support, and have challenged the Government to protect universities’ funding if there is a change to the fees cap.
I’ve also pressed the Government on providing Sharia-compliant student loans, which they have been promising for some years.
I challenged then Education Secretary Michael Gove about the Government’s withdrawal of the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA), which supported young people from lower income families to continue in post-16 education. I opposed the Government’s decision to end maintenance grants for poorer students, challenged Government plans to cut the Disabled Student’s Allowance and spoke out against scrapping bursaries for nurses and midwives. I subsequently called for the Government to reverse their decision to cut bursaries for student nurses and midwives after new figures revealed that course applications had dropped by nearly a quarter.
I launched a joint NUS-UUK report about the BAME attainment gap and proposed amendments to the Higher Education Bill to increase access and participation to universities for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
You can read more about my work on Education and Skills, including challenging the Government to properly fund schools and further education, here.
Mental health services
College and university is an exciting time in people’s lives, but worrying NUS research shows the extent of mental health problems amongst students. I have raised this in Parliament, pressing the Health Secretary on the waiting times and mental health crisis and challenging the Universities Minister on the need for greater focus on student wellbeing.
I have also chaired APPG for Students meetings about the provision of mental health support for those in further and higher education, including one last year about the University Mental Health Charter, and held meetings with both Universities UK and the Office for Students on the issue.
International students enrich university life and our city more broadly. It makes no sense that our universities have been losing out because of immigration policies affecting student recruitment, whilst other countries benefit from the boost to their economies that international students bring.
I set up and Co-Chair the All-Party Parliamentary Group on International Students with Lord Karan Bilimoria, partly to press these issues, and our report on ‘A sustainable future for international students in the UK’ set out a series of recommendations for action, including an ambitious target for growth which the Government have adopted.
I have long campaigned for one of our other recommendations, a two-year post-study work visa. I secured that commitment from the previous Government, working with former Universities Minister Jo Johnson, and was pleased to see it introduced in July 2021.
Careers guidance and job opportunities are often raised with me by students in Sheffield. I chaired an APPG on Students seminar in Parliament on improving careers advice. I have been a member of the Joint Committee on Education, Skills and the Economy, and supported proposals for our first inquiry to review careers information, advice and guidance.
But it’s not just about advice. We need more jobs, and particularly graduate jobs in Sheffield, so I’ve pushed the Government to spread opportunities across the country, not concentrate them in London.
Students contact me on a wide range of issues, but this is a selection of my work on specific student topics. Please get in touch if you want to find out more.