Y Pwyllgor Plant, Pobl Ifanc ac Addysg - Y Bumed Senedd
Children, Young People and Education Committee - Fifth Senedd19/11/2020
Aelodau'r Pwyllgor a oedd yn bresennol
Committee Members in Attendance
|Dawn Bowden MS|
|Hefin David MS|
|Laura Anne Jones MS|
|Lynne Neagle MS||Cadeirydd y Pwyllgor|
|Sian Gwenllian MS|
|Suzy Davies MS|
Y rhai eraill a oedd yn bresennol
Others in Attendance
|Becky Ricketts||Undeb Cenedlaethol y Myfyrwyr|
|National Union of Students Wales|
|Jamie Insole||Undeb Prifysgolion a Cholegau|
|University and College Union|
|Joe Atkinson||Undeb Cenedlaethol y Myfyrwyr, Cymru|
Swyddogion y Senedd a oedd yn bresennol
Senedd Officials in Attendance
|Sarah Bartlett||Dirprwy Glerc|
|Tanwen Summers||Ail Glerc|
Cofnodir y trafodion yn yr iaith y llefarwyd hwy ynddi yn y pwyllgor. Yn ogystal, cynhwysir trawsgrifiad o’r cyfieithu ar y pryd. Lle mae cyfranwyr wedi darparu cywiriadau i’w tystiolaeth, nodir y rheini yn y trawsgrifiad.
The proceedings are reported in the language in which they were spoken in the committee. In addition, a transcription of the simultaneous interpretation is included. Where contributors have supplied corrections to their evidence, these are noted in the transcript.
Cyfarfu'r pwyllgor drwy gynhadledd fideo.
Dechreuodd y cyfarfod am 09:19.
The committee met by video-conference.
The meeting began at 09:19.
Good morning, everyone. Welcome to the Children, Young People and Education Committee meeting that's being held virtually today. In accordance with Standing Order 34.19, I've determined that the public are excluded from the meeting in order to protect public health. Notice of this decision was included in the agenda for this meeting, published on Monday. As usual, the meeting is being broadcast live on Senedd.tv, with all participants joining via video-conference. As usual, a Record of Proceedings will be published. Aside from the procedural adaptation relating to conducting meetings remotely, all other Standing Order requirements for committees remain in place. As usual, the meeting is bilingual, and simultaneous translation from English to Welsh is available. If we become aware that there's an issue with the translation, I'll ask you to pause for a moment while our meeting technicians reset the system. We've received apologies for absence from Siân Gwenllian and Laura Jones, and there are no substitutions. Are there any declarations of interest, please, from Members? No. Okay. Can I just remind everyone that if, for any reason, I drop out of the meeting, it's been agreed that Dawn Bowden MS will chair while I try to rejoin?
Going on, then, to item 2, which is an evidence session on the impact of COVID-19 on higher education and staff and student well-being. I’m very pleased to welcome our panel this morning: Joe Atkinson, who is press and public affairs consultant with National Union of Students Wales; Becky Ricketts, who is president of NUS Wales; Jamie Insole, Wales policy officer at the University and College Union; and Jim Dickinson, who is associate editor of Wonkhe. Thank you for joining us this morning. We’re really looking forward to what you’ve got to say. We’ll go straight into questions from Suzy Davies.
Welcome, everybody. You don’t all need to answer every question, if that’s okay, because we’ve got quite a lot to get through. So, I’ll leave it to you to decide who answers, starting with a very general question about your overall thoughts on the Welsh Government’s plans for students' return home at Christmas and whether you think it's a genuinely UK approach. Even if it’s not, does that matter particularly? What do you and your students think about the approach?
Who’d like to go first?
Would you like me to go first?
Go on, then, yes.
Excellent. Well, I have to say, it's mostly only good news today. We’re relatively happy with the current arrangements. We do have certain concerns about what the return will look like, in terms of students returning from home and the measures in place for lateral testing. There again, we’re engaged in very positive discussions with Government at the moment. So, other than flagging that up, in terms of the testing regime, we have no complaints whatsoever.
Okay. Thank you. Becky, do you want to give a student perspective, or Joe?
To be honest, I don’t think that the initial return to campus in September was managed particularly well anywhere in the UK. Decisions were made in the interests of institutions’ finances, rather than what was actually best for the student population. Students were told all summer that it would be safe to return to campus, that they’d get a similar experience and wouldn’t miss out on much of the student experience compared to normal years. But it’s clear that that is not the case. We now have a situation where a lot of students, many living away from home, from families and support networks for the very first time, have been isolated and unable to see these support networks for months on end.
But, having said that, since the problems with the return to campus became apparent, and have been raised, the Welsh Government, and the education Minister in particular, have engaged with us as NUS Wales, and with students, actually, on the ground, to hear these concerns. I've personally been meeting with the Minister weekly since the start of October, and this has allowed us to have that open dialogue with the Welsh Government and communicate these issues and questions quickly, both from students and from student unions. So, that dialogue, and that relationship and collaborative approach has really helped Wales to avoid some of the student horror stories that I think we've seen in other areas of the UK. We've seen students banned from pubs and restaurants, we've seen private security forces hired by universities policing our students, we've seen fences put up around student accommodation blocks in halls of residence. Thankfully, we haven't seen anything as extreme here, just because of the relationship and that commitment from the Welsh Government in listening to those students' concerns.
Thank you. Suzy.
You've given us a little bit of an insight into the lessons learned over the autumn term. Is there anything else you'd particularly like to draw to our attention on that? Because what I'm picking up is that students at the moment are relatively okay and relatively happy with the return-to-home policy. I've got a few more questions on that, but, overall, what are the lessons learned, do you think?
I just think a bit more consistency across the UK would have been helpful for students to understand their roles and responsibilities. We've had students in Wales who have maybe had to adapt to very different rules to other nations. But, I think, the most important thing in Wales, and the rest of the UK, is that we're treating students with fairness and with equality, and that's definitely not necessarily happened consistently everywhere.
Any other thoughts on that before I move on? Thank you, Becky.
Can I just come in on Christmas as well?
It's really good that there is now a plan in place to get students home at Christmas, and we are really glad that a four-nations approach has been taken to ensure it's a co-ordinated effort. Because we realise that there would be significant risks associated with an unmanaged migration of students, as was seen in September, and for students who were worried about staying on campus over Christmas, they'll have that peace of mind. But it is really important—vital, actually—that those students receive timely information from their university about the plans for testing and ending blended learning so that they can actually plan to travel and get home safely. Obviously, there are two sides of the Christmas migration. There's also January, and we really need to see, quite quickly, a plan put in place for the safe return in January as well. Students are already expressing concerns. And, also, just really to recognise that not every student will be able to go home at Christmas, or want to. There are estranged students for whom Christmas is already a really difficult time, so it's so important that those students receive support from their institution as well.
I think that's a good point. We're aware that students stay in university over Christmas anyway, quite often, but it's very different this year, isn't it?
Can I just pick that issue up quickly?
Yes, of course.
There are real holes right around the UK in the guidance and support on that issue. So, actually, the guidance and support, if we assume that students are in residential mode, is fine, and commuter students, that's fine, but there are a hell of a lot of international students who have paid a lot of money to be in Wales, care leavers, estranged students and so on. International students at this point may not be able to use lateral flow tests to board an aeroplane, so we're sort of forcing them to stay in Wales over Christmas. But what we don't know at this point is whether there will be household gathering restrictions and how they might impact international students who are left on their own. Now, to give you an example of this, if, over Christmas, an international student who's been sharing a house with three other home students is left on their own over Christmas, the household gathering rules are really going to matter. Now, what you would want, I think, is Welsh Government to put some guidance out that says, 'Let's facilitate the process by which students who are left in university towns and cities over Christmas can reduce the number of households so they have some people to spend some time with over Christmas'. But that hasn't come yet and would clearly need to be co-ordinated around the rest of the UK. So, there needs to be some real thought on those students who are left in our towns and cities over Christmas—the level of thought that has perhaps gone into more traditional perceptions of students who are returning to family homes. It's a real hole.
Thank you for highlighting that. I'm sure we'll have all been picking that up. Thank you. Before we move on to January, can I just ask you about your views on the asymptomatic testing proposals that are out there? I mean, obviously, we've heard of some difficulties from universities themselves, but do you think it's a good idea? Is it the way forward?
Who'd like to start? Becky.
Obviously, this asymptomatic testing is something that is still being trialled across the UK, so it's actually still relatively new. So, for us, it's really important that students have the confidence in that system, that the asymptomatic testing system will work and that they actually understand what the testing will ask of them and what it would involve. There's also the concern that a lot of students are young people, and there's, obviously, a widespread conversation that a lot of young people can still carry the virus without necessarily showing the symptoms. So, there needs to be consistent communication to students about that fact and making sure that they know the hows, the whens and the wheres of getting a test and how vitally important it is.
I think one of the challenges of this is making sure that testing is available as soon as possible and within reach of all students on all campuses. We have some quite remote campuses in Wales, but it's making sure that those students still have access to the asymptomatic tests in the same way that some students in bigger towns and cities will be able to. And making sure that those students, then, have the test in time to make sure they don't miss that travel window and then potentially have to self-isolate in the run-up, or even on Christmas Day, on their own in their campuses.
Are you saying that communication isn't particularly clear at the moment, then? Because you're right; there's not much time left now, is there?
Time is absolutely of the essence. So, for us, it's important there is communication from the Welsh Government and from institutions around making sure that these students are able to get the tests in enough time so they can still travel home for Christmas and have the Christmas that we'd assumed to be on the horizon.
I don't mind who answers this. Are you picking up from students that they think there are basically just too many of them to get the asymptomatic test before they leave?
Would anyone like to comment?
There's an interesting answer to that question, which is I'm not sure we know how many students have already gone home, how many students are intending to get a test, how many students might decide they're better off pretending they have symptoms and getting a population case detection test, and so on, and so on. So, part of the problem with answering that question is we don't really know how many students we're talking about, and there are really different estimates of participation in any asymptomatic testing programme. So, the asymptomatic testing programmes that have been on so far around the UK in some universities have never really hit more than 25 per cent, 30 per cent. So, there are really big open questions, not least because, to some extent, there are disincentives to getting a test that involve the penalties of self-isolation that isn't financially supported. So, it's a really open question, this, and it will be important for us to try and get a sense of how many students take up what is still a voluntary opportunity, clearly, in relation to them thinking about whether we need to incentivise more clearly getting asymptomatic testing to reopen a little bit in the new year.
Okay. Can I just ask you what you meant by a financial disincentive for students to self-isolate? I can recognise all the others, but are you talking about students who would otherwise be working as well?
Okay, I just wanted to clarify. And then, just to move on quickly, because there are lots of questions, what's your view—? Should students come back in January? I know universities are concerned that maybe some won't, but do you think the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies is right and students should stay online for at least January?
Okay, I'll take—. Becky, do you want to go first, and then I'm assuming, Jamie, you've got a view on this as well?
So, from our perspective, to be honest, the most important thing is that students have that choice and that flexibility to make the choice about how they access their education. If a student would prefer to learn online from home, then that option should be afforded to them, with rent rebates given for the time that they're not living on campus because they've made that decision. Universities and some private accommodation providers actually did this back in March, and the same should happen now if students should prefer to stay at home and access their education online because it's safer for them.
I think it's also important that in-person learning can and should happen, but only when it is absolutely safe to do so for both our students and our staff members. We've had plenty of concerns, especially from disabled students with potential accessibility needs, that online learning can be incredibly difficult to access and engage with in the same way as face-to-face learning. But, as I said, in-person teaching should only be done if it's safe, and we are absolutely not in favour of putting either students or staff at risk to ensure that value-for-money aspect.
Okay, thank you. Jamie. You need to unmute.
It's becoming a modern cliché, isn't it? [Laughter.]
I say it a lot. [Laughter.]
I mean, in many respects, our view in Wales doesn't differ substantively from what Becky has already told us. We do have a social partnership structure that has, perhaps, given us more opportunities to talk these matters through than might exist elsewhere. That said, just looking at the system objectively, or looking at the situation objectively, we don't really know where we're going to be in January, so I do think it's very important that institutions should have a robust plan B in place.
The other thing that occurs to me, and, obviously, we don't know this yet, but what is the possibility of a January firebreak? So, it might be just as well, and completely accepting Becky's point about the prospects of students who wish to engage in minimal face to face, where that's safe, and return to campus being enabled to do so, but it might be just as well to consider online provision upfront and then a phased return, depending on where we are in terms of rates of transmission and the severity of the virus at that given point.
Okay, that's helpful. And are you all of the same opinion?
Can I quickly come in on this? Just to say there's a temptation, I think, to treat January as a binary in terms of online or not. Of course, the reality is, in January, we won't be back to normal, and nor will we—hopefully, the pandemic won't be so bad that we won't be putting everything online, because there's still lots of stuff that you really do have to do face to face, the training of nurses and so on. So, the question is how much face to face you do. You can make a case for a chunk of face-to-face teaching on the basis that it's good for mental health and people have paid for it and so on, and you can make a case that says, 'It will help spread the virus.' The interesting question, I think, which is perhaps outside the scope of the committee, is would you pick lots of face-to-face teaching over my local library reopening, or my local restaurants reopening, particularly given that universities are telling us they're successfully running lots of courses online, most campuses are inaccessible outside of teaching hours, and a lot of students have already not been allocated any face-to-face teaching this term.
So, there are perhaps interesting models around the rest of the UK where some universities are opening campuses for lots of optional face-to-face activity where it's safe to do so and where students want to take it up, but aren't requiring anyone to come onto campus. And I think not requiring people to come to campus, but having a plan that still makes use of the campus when the progress of the pandemic allows it in Wales is a smarter thing to do than this kind of binary about, 'Should we open or should we not?'
Thank you. Thank you, Chair.
Okay, Suzy. Thank you. We'll move on now to some questions from Dawn Bowden.
Thank you, Lynne, and welcome, everybody. I just wanted—because we've just been dealing with Christmas and the spring term, but I want to ask all of you, really, what your views on the overall approach of the Welsh Government to the pandemic in the sector and for students in particular has actually been. So, a kind of overall picture from you, really.
Who would like to start? Becky.
Yes, I'm happy to start on this one. I think I've echoed it a little bit earlier on, but for us, there's been dialogue with the Welsh Government and the education Minister around the expectation around what necessarily students will be expected to do in December and January. We're having, consistently, weekly meetings with the education Minister around this, and I think there's been a good conversation between universities, the Welsh Government, student unions and the NUS around the expectations of all these different stakeholders, to ensure that the student experience and the student academic experience is still there for students, and it will be even after the pandemic.
Would anybody else like to come in? Jamie.
Yes, by all means. Again, it's so nice to be on a call and not have to be critical. I think it would be fair to say that we had robust conversations in September, but as the relationship has developed, my own experience of this is that this has been a confirmation of the value of social partnerships. We find ourselves in a situation where we're not only at the table, but engaging in discussions and decisions. We've seen our most medically vulnerable members taken off face-to-face work and redeployed to online work for the most part. Really, we've had these discussions and again, in comparison to other places in the UK—and we do speak to colleagues—it has been very useful indeed. Just to give you an example, in terms of making the evidence base transparent, we'll be having a question and answer session with Public Health Wales very soon. I believe that's in the next week or so, whereby our members and others can speak to them about the evidence base underwriting certain decisions. I'm not aware of any other nation in the UK where that has taken place. So, as things stand, I have to say we're relatively satisfied.
Okay. And I'm just picking up on the point that Becky made in answer to Suzy in the last section, which was around Christmas. You said, Becky, that you felt a UK approach to how Christmas was going to be dealt with would have been better. Do you all share that view in terms of the wider approach to the pandemic within the sector? That really, particularly given the cross-border flows between England and Wales, that a UK-wide approach to higher education would have been better. I don't know who would like to—
Jim is nodding furiously there.
Jim's nodding furiously, yes.
Well, I mean, look, because of those cross-border flows, it's—. This is extraordinarily complicated stuff. There was a moment a few weeks ago, where I wrote a blog post about whether or not people were allowed to go home for reading week, if they'd been allocated a reading week. And what I was trying to do was work out the restrictions in their country for whether they could leave their area and the restrictions if they were studying away from home in their country about whether they could enter that area and have a gathering. And it took me about four hours. So the idea that individual students that happen to be studying in a different part of the UK were able to navigate that, understand it and so on is for the birds. The reality about all of that is that we've had different interpretations of 'gatherings', different interpretations of whether or not going home at the weekend is a visit or moving house. We've had different interpretations—. And we don't have clarity on any of that for Christmas yet, and so on, and so on.
So, look, I think the Welsh Government clearly has, if I look at the guidance, done pretty well in comparison to other parts of the UK for Welsh students studying in Wales, but once you get a bit more complicated than that, once you've got Welsh students in other parts of the UK and perhaps Scottish students studying in Wales, and so on, it all falls apart pretty quickly, to be honest.
And that's to do with not necessarily just the rules applying to the sector, but actually the national rules applying in each of the nations of the UK around how we're managing COVID. That's the point you're making.
Okay. I understand that. I don't know if there's anybody else who wants to comment on that, or whether you're pretty much in agreement with Jim on that. Yes, okay.
The other point—again, Jim, you did touch on this earlier, around some of the challenges around self-isolation for students and to what extent students have been supported, and you highlighted the financial difficulty particularly. Most students do work part-time, they work their way through uni, and so most of them are on zero-hours contracts and what have you. So, if they have to self-isolate, they don't get paid. Has that been the key problem, or have there been other issues around self-isolation that have been brought to your attention?
Well, look, SAGE and others would tell us that, in order to ensure that people self-isolate, you've got to support them, make sure they have access to food and supplies and so on, and that you can't disincentivise it by saying to them, 'We're going to cut you off from your ability to earn income.' Now, lots of students haven't been able to get a job this term. That comes through really clearly in our research, in the qualitative stuff, where students are saying they're really, really struggling because they've not been able to get jobs because hospitality basically isn't there. And students that are on zero-hours contracts, of course, are not supported by any of the self-isolation payment schemes. So, the Wales self-isolation payment scheme opened this week—technically—but because most students aren't on universal credit, they can't access it. Technically, there's a discretionary element, but guess what will happen, students will be told by local authorities that they can't apply for the discretionary element, as has happened everywhere else in the UK where similar schemes have run.
So, there are real problems with loss of income, but much more importantly, universities will find it much easier to provide mental health support, food supplies and so on for people in their halls of residence, and the further you move from university halls of residence, the worse the support gets, for all sorts of obvious reasons. It's partly about cost and practicality, and partly about, 'Out of sight, out of mind.' So, a student that's in a house in multiple occupation is much less likely to get easy access to food deliveries if they're isolated, because they're self-isolating, and so on, and so on. So, the support we've given to students to self-isolate has been pretty poor.
Okay. And has NUS got a view on that as well?
Yes, I agree with Jim. I think I would, kind of, want to bring in student unions here, actually. Obviously, Jim is talking about food parcels and things like that, and a lot of the support there is what student unions are providing for their students. I'm a previous student union president, and I'm so pleased by the fact that they've stepped up to plate and provided additional resource and other essential items for self-isolating students. I think universities will be playing catch-up, a little bit, on that, putting that provision in place for their students, but I think as it's progressed we have seen that investment from institutions to ensure that their students do have that access to basic necessities.
Okay, that’s fine. That’s fine. My final question in this section, really, is around accommodation, and again I'm going to come back to you, Jim, because you spoke to us back in June about this and you talked about how there might be pressure on students to sign up for accommodation before they knew what their learning offer was, and so on. Did any of those concerns play out during this term? And what issues have students been raising? Do they have sufficient flexibility in their agreements, do you know?
No. Look, there are heartbreaking stories in the qualitative polling that we did in October that are mostly focused on students who have either only been allocated a very small amount of face-to-face teaching this term or haven't been allocated any face-to-face teaching this term, and the most consistent message that comes through is, 'Why am I here?' What they mean is, they could have commuted. They could have done this from home, but they have signed up to a really expensive accommodation contract, months and months and months beforehand, because they were told they had to. That's obviously been exacerbated by the Christmas student travel window, and clearly, as the rest of the academic year plays out, that will continue to be a real problem. For obvious reasons, whilst there have been some informal solutions from some universities, particularly at the start of term, as the year ticks on it becomes harder and harder to say to students, 'You can give up and leave', because landlords won't have it.
Yes. Okay. I understand that. I don’t know, Becky, Joe, whether you've got anything to add to that. No, okay, that's fine. Okay, thank you very much, Chair. Thank you.
Okay. We're going to go on now to some more questions. Thanks, Dawn. Suzy.
Yes. I just want to ask you a few questions about rights and redress, but I just want to share a little bit of an e-mail that's literally just come in from a student praising their university, but saying:
'We are still paying the full amount and only having a quarter of the facilities on offer'
'We feel, on the whole, a bit like a yacht without a skipper, directionless.'
Is that a common experience that's been shared with you?
I think it's clear that students are not necessarily getting the experience that they necessarily first signed up to, or that they ever thought that they would get, signing up back in September. I think a lot of students are dissatisfied with their learning experience at the moment, and they are calling for partial refunds and fee reductions to reflect this. Obviously this process is really quite difficult for students. The system for pursuing a complaint in a university, in the majority of our universities, is not designed to make this process easy for students, just as a given. Obviously, this is then leading to students feeling, as you rightly said, trapped or having to stay on to avoid paying a year's tuition for an education that they otherwise wouldn't be getting. Obviously, we respect that universities and accommodation providers are businesses, and contract law is in place for a reason, but when students don't feel like they’re getting the opportunities that they originally signed up for months in advance, it makes it a lot more difficult for that contract to feel like it's enforceable. But for a lot of students, again, the time and commitment it takes to make a complaint to the university and exercise those rights that they do have, but is made difficult, is often too much for students that are already struggling. So, there are a lot of barriers in place for students to be able to exercise these rights, sometimes.
Can you just give us an example of what might be one of those difficulties? I think we all appreciate the contract law end of things; no-one's going to rush off to a solicitor to try and unpick those, but the actual complaints process itself. Is it time? What's the complexity?
I think there's quite a few. So, students, for example, that might be suffering with mental health, which is obviously a huge concern. A lot of those students might be struggling to even log on to attend lectures and things like that. Being then faced with a 10- or 15-page form to fill out your complaint and spill the difficulties of what you're facing can be quite emotionally and mentally challenging for those people. If there are students that are potentially international students, then there might be a linguistic barrier to understanding some, again, really quite complex forms. There are some students who might be facing, again, particular challenges, and having to write that out and spill that difficulty out on to paper, again, in front of people, for it to be read, again, is quite challenging for some students.
Okay. Has anyone got anything to add to that?
Yes. We did some specific polling on this in October, and to give you a sense of the figures in Wales—so this is weighted by university across all eight universities in Wales: you're running at about 30 per cent of students that specifically disagree that they understand their rights and entitlements and how to complain. And that number significantly increases amongst students who are dissatisfied with their academic experience. And that number also significantly increases amongst students who are considering dropping out.
And when you read the qualitative stuff, there is a bunch of reasons why: so, some of it is they don't know how to complain; some of it is they fear academic reprisals for complaint, because they don't want to be marked down—you can sort of understand that because they have to complain internally first. But, absolutely crucially, most of them don't know the basis on which they would make a complaint. So, they might understand the process, but they don't understand whether or not what they're being given now is a breach of their rights or good enough. And, to be honest, I have days like that too—and I think of myself as pretty much an expert—partly because, on the one hand, we tend to say to them, 'If the quality isn't there, make a complaint', but the complaints body would say you generally can't make complaints about quality because that's a matter of academic judgment.
So, look, to some extent, even if every student in Wales understood how to complain, it doesn't help unless we remove that threat of complaint and, crucially, it doesn't help unless we're clear with them about the basis on which they might be able to launch a successful complaint and therefore take up their time and their effort and so on.
I think that's a really good point actually, Jim, thank you. Actually, in your research, is the greatest dissatisfaction being expressed with the quality of the delivery of the education side of this or is it skewed by the fact that some students say, 'Well, our social expectations here are also being completely trashed'?
Yes, okay. Well, look, again, I can give you the figures. So, in Wales, on academic delivery, in October, about 30 per cent of students specifically disagree that they're satisfied; neither agree nor disagree, about one in five—20 per cent; and agree, 50 per cent.
On the wider student experience, people are more upset. So, 36 per cent of Welsh students specifically disagree that they're satisfied with the wider student experience; neither agree nor disagree, 31 per cent; and agree, 33 per cent. So, about a third in each of those categories. So, it is true to say that the wider student experience is a particular disappointment for Welsh students, but it is also true to say that Welsh students are, in significant numbers, dissatisfied with academic delivery.
Now, that was October, and that was fairly early for a number of students. So, that might improve as we run through the rest of the academic year, but there's definitely some work to be done, I think, by universities to address some of the concerns. And what I would say about the bulk of the concerns in the qualitative stuff, on academic delivery, is it's not so much about whether it's online or offline, it's the sense of isolation and the lack of social learning that students are getting—they can't interact with each other, they can't interact with their lecturers and that goes both for online and offline. They're feeling quite academically lonely. And the social learning thing is really, really important to most students.
Well, I think we all feel that—this is not the same as our usual committee experience, is it? I just want to ask, though: both the NUS and HEFCW have had money to help support students through some of this, particularly on the mental health side. Are you getting a sense that those two pots of money—to be fair, the NUS money is only very, very recent—are starting to influence the way that our students are feeling about the quality of learning that they're having as well as the social experience of being in university? Is it starting to impact, basically?
I think it's still quite early to be able to say. The money was only announced towards the end of last month, and obviously, it'll take a while to distribute that out and identify where exactly the money will be made best use of. In terms of the money allocated to us, we're looking to expand our capacity to be able to support student unions and universities to provide mental health support. But yes, I'd say it's too early to say right now, but we can certainly provide some more information after the committee to just give you an idea of what we're thinking and what HEFCW might be thinking as well.
Okay, that would be helpful. I appreciate it is early days on that. Just a final one from me, Chair: I think we've taken evidence from some of you before about this being—the use of this money should be appropriate to the students themselves, regardless of their institution almost, that it's not necessarily a UK-wide approach you're looking for; it needs to be more personalised than that. Is that your position, or would you prefer to see a UK-wide strategy on this? Certainly, on mental health more generally, I know you've had requests on that front.
I think that the way additional funding has been distributed is appropriate in this case, probably. Universities and student unions, I think, are best placed to identify support for their own students in need. So, we're glad that the money from the Welsh Government has been made available for student support for students across Wales and not necessarily just for Welsh students, whether they're studying here or elsewhere. This approach has been taken in other parts of the UK as well, so Welsh students in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland have benefited from Government funding in those nations. So, I think very much that this strategy has just followed what's happened across the UK, really. It doesn't necessarily matter how the money is distributed, and I think it's good that it's gone to the people who know how to reach our students.
Thank you. We've got some questions now from Hefin on student financial support and hardship. Hefin David.
Do you think the student financial support package adequately reflect the challenges of the pandemic? Are the rules fair? What are your views on the fact that those who return home may receive reduced support as normal?
Did everyone catch that? Hefin was asking if you think the student financial support package reflects the challenges, whether it's fair, and also on the issue of young people who return home getting less support with their student costs.
We've seen an increase in applications to hardship funds. I was talking about this the last time we met in this committee. And that's happened in universities across Wales during the pandemic, so I think it's fair to say that students haven't been adequately supported by the existing funding package, because of the impacts of the pandemic. The additional investment in hardship funds that's happened have been a positive step, but ultimately, I don't think hardship funds represent a long-term solution to the ongoing financial hardship students are facing, and it's not just going to be this year; it's going to be future years as well because of the economic impact, the lack of part-time jobs, et cetera. So, I think it would be sensible for Welsh Government to at least consider what else it can do via student finance, in its normal student support package, to ensure that students can get by.
Do you think part-time students should have access to it?
The hardship package.
The hardship package? Yes, absolutely. I think any student who is facing financial hardship for whatever reason should be able to apply. And I know that universities have opened up the ways in which students can apply to hardship funds and they've made it easier for students, regardless of who they are. I know it's difficult, and in some cases, international students haven't previously been able to access hardship funds, but universities have made it easier for them as well. So, I think any student who's facing difficulties should be able to apply for that support, because ultimately, some students just can't get the support anywhere else.
And the additional funding being distributed to Welsh institutions won't be available outside for students studying outside of Wales. What do you think about that, and should they receive support?
As I've said before, Welsh students in other parts of the UK will get funding through their own university and from the Governments of countries that they're studying in. I don't necessarily think it matters how that money reaches them; perhaps the more important thing, as I said, is that the money goes to the universities and student unions who know how to reach those students. So, it's not a particular concern for us.
Okay. Thank you.
Did you want to come in on that, Jim?
Yes. Look, what we should be clear about here is that we always have choices about whether or not we funnel money to students through the state schemes or through institutions, and there are pros and cons. But, you know, the practical reality here is that the funding for hardship for students and funding for mental health for students in Wales that has come through institutions is significantly more generous than, for example, the funding that has been available in England where, really, all the Government has done in Westminster is take some student premium funding and tell universities that they can spend it in a slightly different way. Now, what that really does mean is that students who are depending on hardship funds via their institution in England are just going to have significantly less access to funding than students that are studying in Welsh institutions. Now, on one level, there are moments where, I think, Welsh politicians and Wales should be very proud of the additional funding that's been put in for institutions through the powers that are there and available to Ministers, but, on another level, UK wide, it’s a bit of a failure to be in a position where Governments are, to some extent, competing over this when there are so many cross-border flow issues. Ideally, we'd be in a position where we could say to any student around the UK, 'You're getting the sort of support you need on hardship and mental health, if we have to put it through institutions, but sadly right now we’re not.'
Okay. Hefin, you okay? Okay, great. Thank you. Dawn has some questions now on staffing issues. Dawn.
Thank you, Chair. I guess, Jamie, you're probably going to be the one that's going to be the most interested in these questions. What we have heard is that the pandemic's having a different impact on HE staff across genders, and I just wondered what your views were on that, and how institutions can actually manage that?
Okey-dokey. Certainly, I'm aware of the UK and international evidence, and certainly in terms of part-time precarious and also the specific problems around the way in which research and articles are deployed in order to attract funding. I was reading a very compelling study in the The Lancet that demonstrated the decline in articles submitted by women over the lockdown period. And there's a lot of material like that—material from the Trades Union Congress as well. For the most part, it locates this problem and the traditional double burden. So, oddly when men are working from home they tend to become more productive and, surprise surprise, when women are working from home, they becomes less productive—[Inaudible.]—could be childcare and other—I say incidental work—unpaid work [Inaudible.]
I have to say, we haven't really picked up these issues in Wales, which is not to say for a moment that they don't exist. We have carried out branch consultations and, certainly, when we talk about the precarity end of things, we have submitted a number of FOIs to all institutions and, at the moment, we're not picking that up. In terms of how it can be addressed, and bracing the fact that we don't really have the Welsh evidence base at the moment, as far as I'm aware, and that could be a useful piece of work in the future, certainly around reconstruction, that would be my point there: let's do some work to look into it. We're really looking at gender equality on research boards. We're looking at the traditional structural solutions that we would adopt if we were tackling gender inequality anywhere. So, I'm sorry I can’t be more useful about the—
No, no, that's helpful as far as it goes, and I take your point about not having, necessarily, a Welsh evidence base on that at the moment. Jim, is there anything you want to add to that? No, okay, that’s fine.
Okay, I just wonder, then, if we could look at the general impact of the HE response to the pandemic on both professional services and academic staff in institutions? To what extent do you believe that they’ve been supported, and do there remain concerns?
Well, there will always be concerns, as you can imagine. When I talk about the success of our negotiations and our gratitude for the social partnership model that is in place, which, I've got to say, has moved mountains over the last two and a half months, at the same time there will always be concerns. I think you need to see where the staff are at the moment and, forgive me, they're knackered. I mean, they're absolutely knackered. Any leave or respite that they have had has been taken up in adapting to new procedures, adapting materials for online and whatnot. I mean, face-to-face teaching necessarily involves more teaching because you're segmenting people and taking more groups than can be said of online. So, I mean, the first thing I would say is that the sector needs a bit of a rest, a bit of respite. I mean, really, it needs a space in which to breathe, because workload has rocketed through the roof. I mean, more positively, and I think I touched upon this before and—. I’m keenly aware of what Jim is saying about the efficacy of the UK response. To me, I can't help but think that there are certain political barriers in the way, and I myself am grateful for what we have done in Wales. So, one of the examples would be the degree to which we've taken medically vulnerable lecturers out of face-to-face, out of risk. So, I mean, that's gone a long way to assuaging concerns, but, at the end of the day, the feeling is one of fatigue, and I would imagine that many of our members are wondering how much longer they can keep it up.
Sure, yes. I can understand that, absolutely. One of the things that we did hear was the concern around redundancies, and particularly amongst early career researchers that were on fixed-term contracts, and whether they would be particularly vulnerable to redundancies. Has that proven to be the case since the summer, do you know?
I was just subtly trying to bring up some data in the background whilst Jim was talking. I'm happy to confirm at the moment that we sent out FOIs to, let's see, yes, every one of Wales's universities, and at the moment we are seeing nothing significant. We'll get on to redundancies in general in a moment, but we're seeing nothing significant in terms of part time, fixed term—the sort of contracts that we're talking about here.
Okay, okay. And any wider plans that you've picked up about restructuring and redundancies, because this was something that was being talked about before universities came back—has it materialised? Have you seen universities talking about the need to restructure to avoid that? What kind of things are going on at the moment?
With one big exception, which I will touch upon, no. Obviously, there are ongoing discussions, not around redundancies. The inspectorate has proved to be quite resilient, and I think the Privy Council grant went a long way to stabilising the situation and I would ask you to not consider a second sum in future, but at least appreciate the positive impact that had, both in terms of confidence and stabilising the financial health of our institutions. I just found in my papers, Bangor—Bangor is a concern for us, but at the moment it seems to be moving towards a good outcome. We were looking at 200 jobs and positive £30 million savings, six or seven or eight weeks ago, which would have been catastrophic, both in terms of the local community and for the lives of those affected. We're now down to 48 and £2 million, so 152 of those redundancies have been taken off the table, and, as things stand, we are engaged in meaningful consultations and I think we can say that there is good faith on both sides, and we would hope to reach a position where compulsory redundancies can be avoided. So, Bangor was the one, you know, on fire, and we seem to be on top of that, and hopefully that can be brought towards a positive conclusion.
Okay, so with the exception of Bangor, then, generally across Wales it's okay. Has recruitment been better than you expected?
To be honest, I can't answer that, but I'd be happy to get back to the committee if needed.
Okay, that's absolutely fine. That's great. Okay, that's fine. Thank you, Chair. Thanks.
Okay, thank you, and we've got some final questions now from Hefin David. Hefin.
Can I just come back to Jamie Insole on what he said about how, when men work from home, they're more productive, and when women work from home, they're less productive? I'd like to see the evidence behind that, because I find that a little bit offensive, having been unable to attend this committee throughout the first period of lockdown because I've been looking after my children. So, what evidence have you got for that?
My apologies, and speaking as a father myself who frequently looks after his own two-year-old, I would agree. The evidence—it's not evidence per se—. As I said, we've got a situation whereby we have access to research, and some of it, I've got to say, is hypothetical. But we have access to research that tells us that where women work from home they become less productive—and I can find you this research and send it to you—whereas when men work from home they become more productive. And I think the academic consensus is that this is because women are far more likely to find themselves burdened with household tasks. So, that's what I meant. I can't—
That's exactly the reverse of all of our experiences on this committee, I've got to say.
Because I'm the one who's struggled with childcare, and everyone else on this committee has been able to engage much more fully. So, I think we should be very careful about making generalisations.
Oh, certainly, generalisations, I accept that, and, as I said, speaking as a father to a two-year-old myself, I know the difficulties that that can involve.
Okay. I appreciate that. Can I move on to—
Yes, go on.
—graduate outcomes and general recommendations? I'm a member of the Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee as well, and we heard that there may be widespread graduate unemployment as a result of the pandemic, and I'd just like to know your views, as a panel, on what you think—whether you support that and whether there's any evidence that the most recent graduating cohort will have those particular issues.
Who would like to start?
Could you hear that?
Yes, everybody heard, I think. Becky.
Thank you. [Inaudible.]—there's a huge risk of this potentially happening. Obviously, we're already in a financial recession and there's rising unemployment in Wales and across the UK, not just as a result of the pandemic but it's certainly linked. There are vaccines on the horizon, which is excellent news, but we're obviously not out of the woods yet. The economic recovery is likely to be longer than just a year, two years, three years. For us, education, and particularly the idea of lifelong learning, is going to be a fundamental part of that economic recovery. I think we need to do more to encourage people to take up further and higher education and give more people opportunities to upskill and to retrain. I think, without doing this, we run the risk of casting even more graduates than are already predicted out into the cold with little prospect for the future in terms of their economic development.
Does anyone else want to comment?
Yes. Can I just quickly add on this that there are lots of concerns that graduate employers are both too busy and not in a financial position to take on graduates? And every new piece of research and every survey that comes out kind of reinforces that. And, clearly, there are some opportunities for Governments right around the UK to be subsidising and propping up internships, and so on and so on.
There's one other thing, though, that comes through really clearly in the qualitative polling that we did in October amongst current students and that is that placements of all sorts—public, private, work experience, optional, essential and so on—are all drying up. And the availability of placements, which are really, really important for students' confidence, to give confidence to employers that they are suitable for the workplace, and so on and so on, is obviously crucially important. There's a danger, I think, that work and placements and graduate employment is viewed as being another Government department's responsibility, but the availability of placements and the extent to which universities and higher education providers have promised that students will be able to get a taste of work and understand work and so on is obviously really important from a university and this committee's point of view. What I would say is that if we have a looming crisis in placement availability, it's probably important that we get on top of it, understand it and support universities with that now rather than it just hitting us in February and March, and so on.
And I'll just give you one very brief example. I was talking to a group of students yesterday who have been facilitated by a students' union, who were all on events management courses, and were saying that it would be fine to do all of the virtual placement stuff and to do the stuff they're doing through Zoom at the moment for a little while, but they don't want to get to the end of the academic year having been promised that they would be able to organise some events in the real world only to be in a position where they've never organised a real event, because they're worried about not only their success in their career, but their ability to go and get a job. So, placement availability, supply, support for that and so on—a really big issue in the coming months.
Okay. I think you've answered my second question there, which is helpful, which brings me on to a more general question: are there any other recommendations that the panel would like to make with regard to these issues right now?
Who would like to start? Becky.
I think just one thing to raise potentially is the cost of doing work experience and undertaking these placements. A little anecdotal evidence: I trained as a primary school teacher, and when I had to do a compulsory placement for part of my course, I was shelling out £400 per placement, just for petrol to get to and from my placement. That doesn't take into account classroom resources and treats for the children, all of these educational things. So, I think there's a real concern around the potential financial cost on top of students for not just elective placements, but compulsory placements in order to be able to get the degree as well. Students shouldn't be having a problem seeking work experience, seeking placements just because of the financial hit to their pockets. This could be, essentially, damaging to students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and I think there's more that could be done to make placements more financially accessible.
Anybody else want to come on this? This is your opportunity to put your flag in the ground. Jamie, anything on the staff side? Okay. Anybody else, Jim?
What, on the employment stuff or more generally?
Just anything you'd like to see us recommend to Welsh Government, and we've got the Minister coming in next week, so—.
Sure, there's one other thing I'd add, I think, that there's no doubt that students are bitterly lonely, and I guess a lot of us are for all sorts of really good reasons, but that's obviously exacerbated if people are living away from home, and it's having an impact on their learning. So, this isn't just a bonus, this isn't just, 'They're missing out on going for a pint with their friends', it's harming their learning. There's no doubt that there is scope for Welsh Government to better support universities to think through safe social activity on campus, for two reasons. One, it alleviates loneliness and deals with the mental health thing, but also because, if it doesn't, and we continue to view campuses as spaces that can only host socially distanced face-to-face teaching—if that's the only thing that can happen on campus, then some students will socialise, it's just that they'll socialise outside of the rules in the middle of the night around each other's houses in a way that transmits the virus. So, if we're pragmatic about bringing students to big cities in Wales, university cities, and then we want to make sure that they're not lonely, learn a lot, get to the end of the year and are not transmitting the virus, we need to give universities much more support to enable students and student unions to socialise safely during the day.
Can I just unpick that, then? What does that look like? What do we need to see Welsh Government doing that they're not doing now?
Let me give you an example. So, right now, an environmental sciences lecturer can probably put on a film screening for a group of students all wearing a mask in a lecture theatre, but the student union environmental society probably won't be allowed in a lot of cases to do exactly the same thing, because we tend to view that sort of stuff as 'social'. So, the reality is that students and student unions will be only too keen to organise safe activity on campus that we might think of as social, but is actually quite important from a mental health and educational point of view. But lots of universities and student unions at the moment feel that they can't, that the guidance doesn't support that, that they're being discouraged from that because of viral transmission and so on. So, supporting people to create and run activity that isn't just the face-to-face teaching part, particularly, as I say, if we are going to continue with moving students to cities where they are away from home, is really, really important. And there are lots of ways in which that can be done safely, as long as we're pragmatic and brave about it.
So, you're saying that the focus has all been on the teaching, rather than trying to ensure that some of the other activities that students should expect to experience, and that needs to be stepped up.
Yes, and as I say, what therefore comes through in the polling is one of two things: either students are following all the rules and are deeply, deeply lonely, or some don't follow the rules and are round each other's houses having parties when they shouldn't be, because the rules don't allow it. We want to avoid both of those things by facilitating something safe from a harm reduction point of view.
Okay, thank you. Anybody—? Joe, were you indicating then?
Yes. Unfortunately, we already had a student mental health crisis in Wales, and indeed across the UK, before COVID even happened. Student diagnoses with mental health conditions have been rising year on year, and students are actually diagnosed with mental health conditions more than the general public. I think it's fairly obvious to say that the impacts of COVID are going to exacerbate this crisis, and I think we're going to see the impacts not just this year, but in years to come. That might be through first-year students who are experiencing mental health difficulties right now who are going to go through the system, but there's also the impact of the economic situation, where students are facing a lot more uncertainty about their futures. We think it's time for a student-specific mental health strategy to help address this and to ensure that mental health services in universities and also NHS services can work together a lot better to deliver positive outcomes for students, because there's a lot of good work going on on the ground in universities, and it has been a Government priority over the last few years to put money into mental health services on the ground, but if they're unable to interact properly with NHS services, then there is a real risk of students falling through the gaps, especially this year.
Thank you, that's very helpful. As you probably know, mental health is very close to this committee's heart, so thank you. Hefin, had you finished? Okay.
Well, we have come to the end of our time, so I'd just like to thank you all for attending. I think we've had a very productive and wide-ranging discussion that will give us plenty of things to take to Welsh Government in our session next week and going forward. So, as usual, you'll be sent a transcript to check for accuracy following the meeting, but thank you to all of you again for your attendance. Diolch yn fawr, thank you.
Item 3, then, is papers to note. Paper to note 1 is additional information for the Curriculum and Assessment (Wales) Bill from Mudiad Meithrin following the meeting on 17 September; paper to note 2 is a letter from myself to Welsh Government Ministers asking for information on the draft budget; paper to note 3 is a letter from the Chair of the Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee to the Minister for Economy, Transport and North Wales asking for information on the budget; paper to note 4 is a letter from myself to all NHS Wales health board chief executives about children and young people’s mental health; paper to note 5 is additional information from the children's commissioner following the meeting of 5 November regarding children's mental health; and paper to note 6 is a letter to the Minister for Mental Health, Well-being and Welsh Language from the Welsh Language Commissioner regarding Welsh language mental health services. Are Members happy to note those? Thank you.
bod y pwyllgor yn penderfynu gwahardd y cyhoedd o weddill y cyfarfod yn unol â Rheol Sefydlog 17.42(ix).
that the committee resolves to exclude the public from the remainder of the meeting in accordance with Standing Order 17.42(ix).
Cynigiwyd y cynnig.
Can I propose, then, for item 4, in accordance with Standing Order 17.42, that the committee resolves to meet in private for the remainder of the meeting? Are Members content? Thank you. We'll now proceed in private, then.
Derbyniwyd y cynnig.
Daeth rhan gyhoeddus y cyfarfod i ben am 10:24.
The public part of the meeting ended at 10:24.