I am enormously grateful for the way higher education institutions in Wales have been dealing with the challenge of the COVID-19 outbreak and working to mitigate the impact on students and staff.
Support for students
I know that whilst many students will already have travelled home, others will still be in their term-time accommodation and may be feeling especially vulnerable. Students who remain at university should, of course, be observing current Government restrictions on travel and outdoor activity. They should be encouraged to note the advice that has been issued by Public Health Wales.
I know that universities in Wales have carried out a range of activities aimed at supporting students’ mental health and wellbeing, supported by funding that I have made available through HEFCW. I am particularly concerned that this support is offered to students who remain away from home at this difficult time and who are likely to feel isolated. Such support should be extended to students who are living off-campus, as well as those in university halls of residence.
I would like to emphasise the need for institutions to communicate clearly with residential students on rents at this time and to take a fair and transparent approach to the administration of accommodation provision. The decision by some institutions to waive some or all accommodation costs is a welcome one.
I recognise that universities are responsible for the planning and delivery of their provision. However, I would expect them to consider the needs of students in providing alternative and accessible formats for both teaching and assessment. I would like you to ensure that students are able to leave with qualifications that are a fair reflection of their abilities, whilst maintaining quality and standards. No student should be penalised unfairly for being in their final year of study at this difficult time.
I know that Students’ Unions across Wales are working incredibly hard – alongside our universities – to offer support, reassurance and advice for students and staff. Wales is home to a diverse and international student community, and the work that SUs are doing (with NUS Wales) demonstrates that we continue to be a welcoming and supportive home for all students.
For clarity, the Home Office has updated its visa guidance to provide greater certainty for international higher education students and staff in the UK currently unable to return home due to COVID-19. This covers three main issues: visa extensions, in-country visa switching and distance learning.
I recognise that students and their families will have questions and concerns as these extremely challenging and unprecedented events develop at pace. In response, my officials are reviewing all student support policies and are working with other Welsh Government departments, the other UK governments, key stakeholders, and our delivery partner the Student Loans Company (SLC), to ensure that students and institutions are properly supported during this time.
I would like you to reassure students that the SLC is planning to make Term 3 tuition fee payments as scheduled and that students engaged in learning will continue to receive maintenance payments on the scheduled dates, whether or not campuses are closed or learning has moved online.
However, the situation is fast moving. The Welsh Government’s FAQ pages will be updated to provide answers as quickly as is possible for students and will be updated regularly to ensure they capture the current position and advice.
You will no doubt be aware that I have written to UCAS to express my concern about the potential risks associated with an increase in unconditional offers from higher education institutions to prospective students as a result of the current coronavirus outbreak. I have made it clear that Welsh learners who were due to sit their A level examinations this summer will be awarded a fair grade to recognise their work, drawing on a range of available information, including students’ outcomes at AS level.
I do not believe, therefore, that there is any good reason for the usual admissions cycle to be disrupted or for universities to begin making their offers unconditional. This would not be in the best interests of students or higher education institutions. I appreciate that the government in England has to deal with the consequences of moving away from AS levels and the impact this has on generating fair grades, but this is best resolved by the four governments and regulators working together to keep, as far as possible, to the usual admission cycle.
I am aware of the role our universities are playing to support our Continuation of Learning project. This is a comprehensive project aimed at minimising the disruption to learning that is to a degree inevitable under the current circumstances. I am grateful for the work you are doing to enable Year 13 students to keep learning and preparing for the next stage in their academic and vocational development. In amongst the challenges, this is emerging as a positive opportunity for students, schools, the regions and and universities. My officials will be following up with institutions on this work.
I am aware that institutions have paused their overseas travel for staff and students in line with current FCO advice against all non-essential international travel for British nationals. All UK students and staff currently studying on exchanges, including Erasmus+, or working temporarily overseas are also advised to return to the UK now when and while commercial routes are still available, in line with FCO’s most recent advice.
The Welsh Government has been in discussion with HEFCW about the regulatory requirements for HE institutions in Wales in view of the current situation. HEFCW are reviewing these requirements and will be in touch with institutions shortly to clarify the situation.
Support for staff
I am aware that institutions have been reviewing and implementing working practices for staff that allow them to maintain a duty of care, for example through social distancing, whilst ensuring that essential business continues. I would encourage you to provide support to staff that bolsters their mental health and wellbeing at this time.
Supporting the national response to COVID-19
I have been clear about my priorities for the higher education sector in developing institutions’ civic mission and contribution to their local communities. Universities have an important role to play in tackling the challenges arising from COVID-19, not just in supporting their own staff and students, but in contributing to actions aimed at dealing with the epidemic and working with the NHS. That can mean contributing equipment, research or accommodation facilities and supporting staff and students to volunteer their time and services. I know that many institutions have already been doing this and I would like to encourage that spirit of civic mindedness.
Thank you again for the work that you are doing to look after your students and staff, and to support the national effort to deal with COVID-19.
Kirsty Williams AC/AM
Y Gweinidog Addysg
Minister for Education