Were Gavin Williamson’s claims on student financial support accurate?

During the debate on Gavin Williamson’s statement to parliament on students’ return to universities, the Secretary of State made a number of bold claims about student financial support.

There were all sorts of vague commitments that will come as a surprise to universities – things like:

We are asking students, where they get tested and there is a positive test, to self-isolate and, as in the wider community, that the immediate contacts also self-isolate. However, we do recognise how important it is for universities to be able to provide support for those youngsters—I touched on this in my statement—with food and cleaning products, and other support that may be available.

But there were some specific claims on money that deserve interrogation. For example, in his statement, he said:

Universities are also able to call on £256 million provided by the Government for hardship funding for students who have to isolate.

He repeated it when he responded to Labour shadow Kate Green:

We are taking seriously some of the challenges that all students and universities will face, which is why we have made £256 million available to make sure that where students are facing real hardship, universities can access funding to help them.

Labour’s Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central) asked him about the financial support the sector has received. He mentioned it again:

I spelt out in the statement the £256 million that was made available for universities to support students to continue their studies.

The Conservatives’ Maria Miller (Basingstoke) even asked him about students that might have planned to use the summer months to earn money to support themselves through university:

Or, indeed, they might have been looking for part-time work while they were studying as a way of ensuring that they could support themselves through these important years of their lives. I am interested to hear from my right hon.friend what additional work the universities will be doing to ensure that those students who are working hard will be able to get the support they need if they hit financial hardship.”

And in response, he mentioned that £256m a fourth time:

We have worked with the Office for Students to ensure that hardship funding is available. That is part of a quarter of a billion pound package that was made available to universities so that proper assessments could be made of students if they required that support.

The problem is, where Williamson suggests there is new money to spend on hardship funds, this is in fact student premium funding – already allocated to support disadvantaged students – a pot of money for 2020/21 that he actually cut back in May!

DK explained the cut when it happened, and I took a look at the £256m claim when Michelle Donelan was making it in April, May and June, and again when she doubled down on it on Any Questions in August.

There were more curious moments. Kate Green asked Williamson about the digital divide that OfS has noticed – an issue he ought to know about given he asked outgoing Chair Michael Barber to look at the issue. She asked:

How many students are currently unable to learn remotely because of a lack of digital access or devices, and what is he doing to address that?

Grinning to himself, Williamson replied:

The hon. Lady raises an important point about digital access. I am sorry that she missed the announcement that we have made £100 million available for universities to use to ensure that youngsters have digital access, including students from the most deprived backgrounds, who would perhaps not be in a position to access courses. It is vital that if we are in a situation where people will have blended learning, all students are able to access it.

This was quite a moment – largely because it was the first we’d heard of this £100m. We thought at first he’d misspoke, then we thought he might have meant that £10m for capital in universities taking more students on because of the examnishambles. Maybe he meant the OfS capital allocation within T funding – but surely you can’t spend that on stuff that students would own, and it’s a different figure. Anyway, when Labour’s Lilian Greenwood (Nottingham South) asked about courses involving a blend of online and face-to-face teaching and Disabled Students UK, he repeated the claim. She asked:

Will the Secretary of State assure the House that every student has the equipment and support they need to learn remotely and that the needs of disabled students are not an afterthought?

He then replied:

As we have touched upon in terms of the availability of devices and the £100 million fund…

We tried very hard to get an answer from DfE, who at first suggested that this fund aimed at disadvantaged compulsory-level pupils was something universities could apply to. So we carefully pointed out that the providers eligible are “schools, maintained schools, academy trusts and hospital schools, as well as further education providers who have enrolled 14 to 16 year olds, are included within this offer”. Not universities.

Later in a point of order, we got a clarification but no apology:

As the House will know, the Government have made available more than £100 million for electronic devices. Those youngsters who are in care and going on to university can access that funding to enable them to have the right type of devices, whether that is a laptop or a router.

Even if we believe this nonsense, around 650 care leavers enter HE each year. Here’s the spec of what they can be issued with under the scheme – £300 value tops. If every single one of the students involved got their LA to get them a device, we’re talking £195k value – or 0.002% of the £100m being trumpeted. Cheers Gav.

Finally, the other part of his answer to Maria Miller’s question on students not having any part time work involved him saying:

The Student Loans Company also offers a system whereby extra maintenance support can be made available through individual assessment if a student chooses to go down that route.

This was also a head scratcher – what could he mean? But following a tweet from Student Finance England all became clear – he actually meant the process by which you can get more maintenance loan if your parents’ income has fallen by having it reassessed – which of course has nothing to do whatsoever with your income falling as a student.

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