Sheffield MPs and Peers have come together to back a letter that I have co-ordinated calling for Government action to back our universities. The letter, which we’ve sent today to Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, highlights the pressures faced by universities in Sheffield as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Signed by Clive Betts MP, Olivia Blake MP, Gill Furniss MP and Louise Haigh MP – and backed by Lord Blunkett and Lord Kerslake – the letter highlights the universities’ role in providing education for over 60,000 predominantly young people, and the wider contribution to the local economy “through developing talent, reskilling the local workforce, driving productivity growth and world-leading research and innovation”.
We call for the fullest possible financial support to universities, to mitigate the impact of coronavirus and strengthen their contribution to the recovery. We also urge the Government to act on a series of measures across five areas – UK student recruitment and retention, re-skilling and retraining the post-Covid workforce, international student recruitment, research and innovation, and supporting 2020 graduates.
Read the full text of the letter below:
We are writing to ask you to take action, liaising with your colleagues as needed, to support Sheffield’s universities to mitigate the risks that they face as a result of Covid-19 and to ensure that they are best placed to drive the economic and social recovery of our region.
Our universities are hugely important to South Yorkshire, not simply in terms of their teaching and research, but also their wider economic contribution and their central role in addressing skills challenges of our region. Together they add over £1.5bn of GVA and 25,000 jobs to the region, as well as educating over 60,000 predominantly young people. Their role has been particularly important for our region since the dramatic decline in steel and mining, which left us as one of the poorest regions in the UK, so any reduction in their activity will have a disproportionate impact on the wider economy.
Looking forward, our universities will be crucial to our economic recovery through developing talent, reskilling the local workforce, driving productivity growth and contributing world-leading research and innovation.
We would obviously hope to see the fullest possible financial support to the universities, to mitigate the impact of coronavirus and strengthen their wider contribution, without which both universities will have to make significant cuts in the year ahead affecting them and the regional economy, and we would also urge you to take the following specific action:
UK student recruitment and retention
We welcome the measures that you have already taken, in response to UUK proposals, to provide stability to recruitment for the coming academic year, but we feel that more action is needed to support universities to attract and retain students.
· Our universities are putting considerable effort into their preparations to offer new and returning students the opportunity to take up or continue their courses with mixed forms of study. This needs to be supported by a clear statement from Government underlining that you want all students to feel confident about their study and the opportunities it will provide them – including specific support for universities’ blended learning offer of smaller face-to-face groups and quality content delivered online - and to keep pressing this message over the months ahead in which they will be making their decisions on whether to proceed next year.
· We also feel that specific measures are needed to ensure that students from more disadvantaged backgrounds are not lost to higher education. We are concerned that prolonged absence from more traditional support, difficulties in engaging with remote learning, and the loss of casual earnings to support their studies may lead such students to leave their studies. We therefore propose that there should be some financial incentives encouraging them to return, perhaps a ‘retention offer’ of a remission of loan payments for those successfully completing the 2020/21 financial year. We would also stress the importance of support for students from relatively disadvantaged backgrounds, through direct support for scholarships.
· Support for businesses to create degree apprenticeships would be a step towards fulfilling the Prime Minister’s wish to ‘guarantee an apprenticeship to every young person’ and would particularly assist in widening participation.
· Alongside support for undergraduate recruitment, we would urge you to encourage applicants for taught postgraduate programmes with a one-off financial support package for courses that do not currently attract funding, to allow students graduating this summer to avoid unemployment and continue with studies relevant to the job market in 2021/22.
Re-skilling and retraining
Looking forward, we are sure that you will recognise that our universities will have a crucial role to play in re-skilling people for the economic recovery and realignment ahead. Many people will need to move to new careers and we should do everything possible to support them. We urgently need the Government to develop a strategy to address this issue, in which we would wish to see the following points.
· The abolition of the rules limiting funding for those studying for Equivalent or Lower Qualifications, as this is an unhelpful barrier that discourages people from reskilling in order to re-enter the economy in a different field or sector.
· We would also encourage you to reform the adult education budget to support those returning to learning, which might include the funding of modular approaches to study through credit accumulation and transfer.
· As part of that reform we would ask you to consider a specific place-based fund that will respond to a region’s needs by encouraging universities and colleges to work with businesses to address skills shortages by creating high quality continuing professional development programmes. We already have a new forum, the Regional Skills Council, which brings together our two universities, colleges and business representatives to respond to our skills challenges and explore opportunities for partnership. This Council could be a useful platform through which to channel skills support.
International student recruitment
We support the Government’s ambition to significantly increase the numbers of international students coming to study in the UK, but obviously the immediate challenge is mitigating the anticipated loss of those planning to come to the UK this year. A significant change in the UK’s position with coronavirus, and our consequent international reputation, will make the main difference, but we would urge you in liaison with the Home Secretary to:
· Do all you can to promote the UK as a safe, attractive destination to study. We are pleased that you have already offered to call contacts (such as Education Ministers) in key markets to support international student recruitment. We would like to see this rolled out across government, and involving the British Council, in a concerted and substantial campaign.
· Introduce the two-year post study work visa as soon as possible. We welcome the proposed introduction of the new visa, but would ask you to introduce it through emergency immigration rules as soon as possible so our universities can confidently promote it in international marketing campaigns, bringing us in line with our competitors.
· Allow students to apply for a visa at least six months before their course start date rather than three months. As you know, universities may need to commence some courses remotely in September 2020 with a view to students returning to campus as soon as international travel restrictions have been lifted. Current immigration rules mean students would not be able to apply for a visa until three months prior to returning, meaning that students face the prospect of having to apply for visas that could be refused after they have actually started their course. Extending the application window would give international students more confidence when applying for the next academic year.
· Fast-track the processing of student visas, following the example of competitors like Australia.
· Publish details of the new ‘study route’, due to open by Jan 2021, as soon as possible. The lack of detail has the potential to create further uncertainty.
· Allow universities with a strong track record of compliance to carry out the language tests required for pre-degree courses to reduce the possibility of bottlenecks in the system.
Research and innovation
Utilising the research contribution of our universities will be vital to rebuilding the local economy. Although you have not felt able to support the UUK proposals for QR funding, there is much that could be done to assist an innovation-led recovery in areas like ours. In particular, we hope that you will:
· Support some devolution of research and innovation funding to address the regional differences of R&D funding and the continued over reliance on the ‘golden triangle’.
· Develop and expand the Strength in Places Fund. Both Sheffield’s universities have submitted applications to the Strength in Places Fund to drive innovation and development in the Sheffield City Region.
· Work with BEIS (and UKRI) to underwrite the cross-subsidy of STEM research. Our universities must demonstrate they are going concerns, anticipating the likely risk that student numbers and income will be significantly reduced in September. Without any reassurance from Government they have to take action now to reduce costs which will damage their ability to maintain the research and innovation in the region that will be needed to drive a recovery plan.
· Support the strength of our research community by ensuring that early career academics are not lost to our universities as a result of disruption to funding.
Supporting 2020 graduates
The potential job market collapse will have a serious impact on this year’s graduates. They deserve support and offering it would send a powerful message to those planning to start their study later in the year. We would therefore ask you to:
· Support the idea of repurposing the apprenticeship levy to create a one-year internship for 2020 graduates. The university levy could also be used to employ postgraduate researchers as interns. Companies could also potentially use it to fund postgraduate research placements in universities. However, we would need to be cautious not to displace existing and future business investment in apprenticeships.
· Incentivising businesses to take apprentices. Many employers do not pay the apprenticeship levy because they are too small, but smaller enterprises will be critical in the future. We believe that there would be benefits to both employers and graduates from a direct payment of a contribution to salary for non-levy paying businesses, to create time-limited new opportunities for 2020 graduates.
This letter builds on the points made by the Sheffield City Region Mayor Dan Jarvis, in his letter of 3rd June, which we endorse. We look forward to hearing your response to our proposals, which we would be pleased to discuss with you.
Lord David Blunkett
Lord Bob Kerslake