Switching to online university lectures a ‘sensible step’ – Sir Keir Starmer

Sir Keir Starmer said moving university lectures online would be a “sensible” way of reducing the transmission of coronavirus on campuses following a spike in cases.

But the Labour leader stopped short of backing calls for students to be given a refund on their tuition fees and rents as a result of such a switch.

The University and College Union (UCU) has called on the Prime Minister to ensure online tuition at universities “becomes the norm” in a move Labour said it supported, as long as the virtual learning materials were accessible to every student enrolled.

Sir Keir’s backing for more remote learning comes after a surge in Covid-19 cases led to thousands of students having to self-isolate at universities including Glasgow, Manchester Metropolitan and Edinburgh Napier.

According to university statements and local press reports this month, at least 30 institutions across the UK have seen confirmed coronavirus cases.

A spokesman for Sir Keir told reporters: “I think it depends on each university but it is clear that we should do all we can to reduce transmission of the virus on university campuses and moving more learning online seems to be a sensible step, particularly for those universities who have got high levels of the virus in those areas.

“But where learning does move online, every student must be able to access it which is why we’ve said it is so important that the Government listens to our demand and ensures that every student can learn remotely if that’s what is introduced.”

The National Union of Students (NUS) has been arguing for tuition fee refunds if the pandemic severely impacts the quality of students’ learning.

Keir Starmer
Keir Starmer

But Office for Students (OfS), the higher education regulator for England, while backing calls for money to be given back, suggested universities should consider partial tuition fee refunds on the “circumstances for each student” rather than “adopt a blanket policy that refunds are not available”.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said it was up to universities whether they offer a refund to students forced to self-isolate, while Labour said it was too early to endorse financial pay-outs.

Asked whether Sir Keir sympathised with student groups requesting refunds, the Opposition leader’s spokesman said: “I think first and foremost the immediate priority is making sure every student gets a good education.

“And that means them being able to learn safely, either in person or remotely.

“Obviously we understand the deep anxiety and deep frustration for students but also their parents across the country.

“So our immediate priority is making sure they get the best education they can right now.”

Pressed on whether there should be at least a partial refund for those missing contact time, the spokesman replied: “Each student is going through a very different lived experience, there is no blanket experience for students at the moment.”

And in a message to students after a video emerged reportedly of students at Coventry University breaking the Government’s “rule of six” regulations at a halls of residence party, the Labour spokesman said the former director of public prosecutions urged those at university to “follow the rule of law”.

Pushed on whether that meant they should not have parties, he added: “No illegal parties.”

Business Secretary Alok Sharma was also asked about the video during broadcast interviews.

He told BBC Breakfast the Government was asking students to “follow the rules, follow the guidance, and act responsibly”.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson told MPs on Tuesday that teaching this term might need to end early at some universities so students could self-isolate for a period before returning to their families for Christmas.