Sheffield MP to continue fight for better hardship funding and rent refunds for students after questioning Universities Minister

A Sheffield MP has pledged to continue the fight for better hardship funding and rent refunds for university students in England, saying the recently announced £50million in extra funding ‘isn’t good enough’.

Tuesday, 2nd March 2021, 12:30 pm

In January, Sheffield Central MP Paul Blomfield launched an inquiry with the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for students – a cross-party group of MPs and Peers of which he is chair – to investigate the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on students’ tuition and accommodation, and the case for compensation.

The group then published recommendations for the Government to quickly provide "emergency hardship fund for students and secure full compensation for rents in respect of unused accommodation due to lockdown measures, as well as addressing the impact on those facing other financial difficulties.”

In response, ministers announced an additional £50 million to support students with financial pressures resulting from the pandemic – equating to just £26 per student in England compared with £300 in Wales and £80 in Scotland and significantly less than the £700 million suggested in the APPG report.

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Sheffield MP Paul Blomfield, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Students

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Now, Mr Blomfield has said he will continue the push for major action from the Government after pressing the Universities Minister Michelle Donelan on how the current proposals fall short on hardship, rent refunds and lost learning.

He said: “We know that students have had a very rough deal. This generation – both at university and also at school – is potentially going to be impacted by the pandemic for longer than everybody else.

"Their education has been disrupted; they will be entering a damaged jobs market; and they will be paying back the costs of the pandemic, the borrowing this country has had to take, they’ll be paying it back for longer than most of us.

There are calls for the Government to provide better support and funding to university students, including those at the University of Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam University

"So, we owe them now to address the problems that they’re facing now. That’s what my group in parliament is campaigning for.”

Many students feel the £9,250 yearly tuition fee in England is too much for what they've experienced in the pandemic, with the majority of teaching online and the university experience now mainly confined to a computer in their bedroom.

However, Mr Blomfield said calls for tuition fee refunds “miss the point of addressing learning loss” and, as noted in the APPG report, “would not assist the majority of students whose fees are paid through the Student Loans Company as the refund would be made to the SLC.”

Instead he asked Ms Donelan to press the Chancellor Rishi Sunak on a ‘Covid Student Learning Remediation Fund’, which would enable universities to make up for missed learning by funding extra educational opportunities such as additional summer schools.

Beth Eyre, president of the University of Sheffield's Student Union

He also urged the minister to ensure fairness between students living in university-owned halls and those in the private rented sector after many students were granted rent rebates while others were left to pay for accommodation they cannot use due to Covid-19 restrictions.

Mr Blomfield said: “As it happens I represent more students than any other MP in the country by a long way. I keep in regular touch with both universities but also both Student Unions and they’ve been raising these issues hard with me.

"Quite a few students have also contacted me directly, mainly on the practical issues they’ve been facing, particularly on accommodation.

"There were mixed experiences up until Christmas but I think things came to a head with the renewed lockdown at the beginning of January and that sense that this term was going to disappear, at least in terms of being physically on campus for most people.

"I think that really brought the issues to a head and it seemed like the right point to launch an inquiry and that was very much done on a cross-party basis.”

Beth Eyre, president of the University of Sheffield's Students' Union, said she was thankful to have Mr Blomfield acting as her MP.

She offered her views to the APPG inquiry and also set up the ‘Forgotten Students of 2020’ campaign, calling for more support from the Government on issues resulting from Covid-19.

"Forgotten Student is not just this year, the pandemic happened in 2020 and 2021 but it will affect society for decades and that’s the urgency that I’ve been feeling,” she said.

"We need the Government to do something and we need them to do it now. We’re happy to be patient and wait for the best solution to come about but there needs to be some form of recognition that this is happening because we haven’t seen that so far.

"We’re doing everything we can with the university and they're being cooperative so far and now it comes down to what we can do on a national level. Paul’s been really helpful and he’s been doing great work as well.

"The £50 million in funding is good but for our university it equates to just £10 per student and that’s nowhere near enough. It’s beyond frustrating, we’ve been so lucky that the University of Sheffield has put an extra £3million into their hardship funding and called it the Covid support fund, so all students regardless of hardship can apply for it.

"We’ve been very grateful to have that to refer students to but it doesn’t even begin to cover the cost of private rent. The people before me have been saying this since March 2020, there needs to be a better response and now it’s nearly a year on all we’re getting is £10 per student, it’s exhausting.”

Partially agreeing with the APPG recommendations, she added: “I’ve struck gold with having Paul Blomfield as my local MP. I personally think there needs to be more on tuition fees but we’re really lucky to have an MP who is so committed and dedicated to his work to students because we are such a large part of his constituency.”

To learn more about the Forgotten Students campaign see https://linktr.ee/sheffieldsu.