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Education Secretary: "Universities need our help – we must maintain education's jewel in the crown"

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Writing in the Telegraph today (Monday 4 May), Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has announced a package of measures to protect students and universities, including temporary student number controls, £2.6bn of forecast tuition fee payments for universities being bought forward and an enhanced Clearing system.

Universities need our help – we must maintain education's jewel in the crown

Coronavirus has caused huge disruption and heartache across the world. None of us will have escaped the impact of this awful virus.

It’s paramount that once the threat of infection recedes and the government’s five tests can be met, we continue to work together to ensure our economy and society can quickly begin to recover.

One of those sectors facing particular challenges is higher education. Universities have already responded tremendously by moving courses and assessments online so that students can progress with their studies.  This crisis has demonstrated even more clearly the tremendous impact universities make to our society, from the scientists at Oxford working to develop a vaccine, to the nurses and doctors who have finished their studies early to work with dedication in the NHS. That is why I have [today] announced a package of measures that will stabilise admissions, support students and allow universities to access financial support from the Government where it is necessary.

As Education Secretary, I am clear that we must we act in the best interests of students, both those currently in higher education and those applying this year. And we must also act to maintain the jewel in the crown that is our world class science base, while recognising the vital role that universities play within regional economies.

We have listened to the sector group, Universities UK, on putting in place measures to stabilise admissions. The Government will accordingly be introducing student number controls for the coming academic year, to ensure the admissions process is fair and orderly and that every student who has applied to university can go, provided they meet the entry requirements.

UCAS will also be launching a new personalised clearing process, so students can switch courses when they have got their results – which can be especially useful to those who exceed their predicted grades. It also includes a new function which matches students to options based on their achievements and their course interests.

I want to avoid at all costs an unseemly scramble for the domestic students who are looking to take up places in September. We must ensure that courses and providers aren’t oversubscribed, as this could result in there being standing room only in some lecture halls and tumbleweed in others.

To help relieve some of the financial pressures on universities, we have confirmed they are eligible to apply for the Government support schemes that have been put in place to help employers during this difficult time, such as the business loan scheme, estimated to be worth at least £700m depending on eligibility and take up. We have also brought forward an additional £100m of research funding to this academic year. Additionally, we have established a Ministerial Taskforce with the Devolved Administrations to address the vital need for preserving our world-class research base during this crisis.

I am committed to ensuring that any dip in the number of international students is temporary, and that the UK remains a vibrant and welcoming destination for all students from across the world. We have shown flexibility and announced important measures to allow universities to continue to recruit internationally during this crisis. We will be relaunching our International Education Strategy this autumn, as well as introducing a new, streamlined, graduate visa route from next summer. These initiatives will help to ensure that universities in the UK remain a beacon for the world’s talent.

I recognise that, despite this support, some universities will continue to face challenges. Universities themselves have acknowledged the need for restructuring, to reshape their operations to achieve better long-term sustainability. I am clear that, as recommended by Philip Augar, this must involve a stronger alignment of the courses delivered with the economic and societal needs of the nation, in a way that ensures all graduates benefit from their studies.

The Department for Education will work to establish a restructuring regime to ensure that, where a case exists, there is a mechanism to assess the need for restructuring, where appropriate and as a last resort. This will come with attached conditions and take place in a way that is in the best interests of students, and that maximises the contribution of higher education to the post-COVID world.

If the coronavirus has taught us one thing, it’s that we are so much stronger when we work together. This is a lesson that our forebears learnt full well when they faced similar national emergencies. I am pleased to say that, thanks to an incredible collaborative effort involving a variety of groups throughout the education sector, we have been working hard to minimise the impact of the coronavirus outbreak.

We have over the past few weeks been in awe of those at the frontline of managing this national crisis and I would like to add my own admiration at the way that universities have responded - not just for their own students, but in their support for the NHS and society as a whole. Now that it is higher education that needs our help, we will make sure it gets it. Our future prosperity will depend on it.

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