The Government has failed to offer final-year university students entering a “severely depressed” jobs market any support, Labour has said.
The party is calling on the Government to meet seven key tests to ensure that recent graduates and students are supported and universities do not go bust as a result of the Covid-19 crisis.
Ministers should guarantee that university hardship funds are “sufficiently resourced and accessible” to students who may face further debt due to the pandemic, Labour said.
Shadow minister for further education and universities Emma Hardy reiterated her call to the Government to prevent institutions from going bankrupt due to Covid-19, adding that it would be a “disaster” for students and for local economies if universities were allowed to fail.
It comes after an Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) report earlier this month warned that more than a dozen universities could be at risk of insolvency without a Government bailout.
Last week, the Government unveiled plans to allow universities in danger of going bust to apply for emergency loans – but Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said it was “not a guarantee that no organisation will fail”.
In a letter to Mr Williamson, Ms Hardy said: “The loss of any individual university will create dead zones for local access to higher education and no university should be allowed to go bust.”
Labour is calling on the Government to “prevent further financial hardship” for students and to offer comprehensive support for 2020 graduates.
Ms Hardy wrote: “The jobs market they enter will be severely depressed. They cannot be left to flounder.
“Proposals from the sector include a system of six-month-long paid internships at the national living wage which would allow graduates to gain invaluable experience. So far the Government has offered nothing.”
Earlier this month, Mr Williamson vowed to tear up former prime minister Tony Blair’s target to send 50% of young people in England into higher education.
He said there were “limits” to what can be achieved by sending more people to universities, adding it was “not always what the individual and nation needs”.
In an online meeting with students, Kate Green, Labour’s shadow education secretary, said she found the rhetoric “astonishing” and “undermining”.
She said: “We want to maximise participation in higher education because that’s going to be good for our country and good for individuals, and we find it just inexplicable that the Government department charged with our education system wants to reduce access to higher education.”
Labour’s shadow education ministers spoke to students on Thursday to hear the challenges they have been facing amid the Covid-19 crisis.
Students reported “shoddy” online lectures and a lack of supervision during lockdown and raised concerns about getting refunds for tuition fees.
When asked whether students should be given refunds, Ms Green warned that they did not want universities “to be put under financial pressures” to refund fees to large numbers of students if it put their financial viability at risk.
She said: “We don’t want any university to fail and to fall out of the sector.”
Ms Green said the Government “must be held responsible” if any institutions are allowed to go bust, adding that they are a “precious and valued asset”.
Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU), warned that the knock-on effect on the local community of a university going bust “would be catastrophic”.
She said: “The Government needs to provide a serious support package for universities to protect jobs and safeguard students’ futures.
“Anything less would be a betrayal of the staff and students that have worked so hard during the current crisis, and leave the sector ill-equipped to help lead the country’s recovery.”
Larissa Kennedy, president of the National Union of Students (NUS), said: “No student should face financial hardship while in education and it is crucial for those graduating this year into a recession to receive extra support.”