Cynulliad Cenedlaethol Cymru

Yn ôl i Chwilio

Y Pwyllgor Plant, Pobl Ifanc ac Addysg

Children, Young People and Education Committee

23/06/2020

Aelodau'r Pwyllgor a oedd yn bresennol

Committee Members in Attendance

Dawn Bowden AS
Helen Mary Jones AS Yn dirprwyo ar ran Siân Gwenllian
Substitute for Siân Gwenllian
Janet Finch-Saunders AS
Joyce Watson AS Yn dirprwyo ar ran Hefin David
Substitute for Hefin David
Lynne Neagle AS Cadeirydd y Pwyllgor
Committee Chair
Suzy Davies AS

Y rhai eraill a oedd yn bresennol

Others in Attendance

Dan Beard Aelod Gweithredol Addysg Uwch Unison a Chadeirydd Unison Cymru
Unison Higher Education Executive Member and Chair of Unison Wales
Denver Davies Pennaeth Monitro a Chydymffurfiaeth, Cymwysterau Cymru
Head of Monitoring and Compliance, Qualifications Wales
Dr Andrew Cornish Pennaeth a Phrif Weithredwr, Coleg Sir Gâr a Choleg Ceredigion
Principal and Chief Executive, Coleg Sir Gâr and Coleg Ceredigion
Dr David Blaney Prif Weithredwr, Cyngor Cyllido Addysg Uwch Cymru
Chief Executive, Higher Education Funding Council for Wales
Dr Myfanwy Davies Llywodraethwr y Cyngor wedi'i Phenodi gan Staff Academaidd, Prifysgol Bangor
Council Governor Appointed by Academic Staff, Bangor University
Dr Rachel Bowen Cyfarwyddwr Polisi a Materion Cyhoeddus, ColegauCymru
Director of Policy and Public Affairs, CollegesWales
Jim Dickinson Golygydd Cysylltiol, Wonkhe
Associate Editor, Wonkhe
Joe Atkinson Ymgynghorydd y Wasg a Materion Cyhoeddus, Undeb Cenedlaethol y Myfyrwyr Cymru
Press and Public Affairs Consultant, National Union of Students Wales
Kieron Rees Pennaeth Polisi a Materion Allanol, Prifysgolion Cymru
Head of External Affairs and Policy, Universities Wales
Philip Blaker Prif Weithredwr, Cymwysterau Cymru
Chief Executive, Qualifications Wales
Russell George AS Aelod o'r Pwyllgor yr Economi, Seilwaith a Sgiliau
Member of the Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee
Yr Athro Elizabeth Treasure Is-ganghellor, Prifysgol Aberystwyth
Vice-chancellor, Aberystwyth University
Yr Athro Medwin Hughes Is-ganghellor, Prifysgol Cymru y Drindod Dewi Sant a Phrifysgol Cymru
Vice-chancellor, University of Wales Trinity Saint David and of the University of Wales
Yr Athro Paul Boyle Is-ganghellor, Prifysgol Abertawe
Vice-chancellor, Swansea University

Swyddogion y Senedd a oedd yn bresennol

Senedd Officials in Attendance

Sarah Bartlett Dirprwy Glerc
Deputy Clerk
Sian Thomas Ymchwilydd
Researcher
Tanwen Summers Ail Glerc
Second Clerk

Cynnwys

Contents

1. Cyflwyniad, Ymddiheuriadau, Dirprwyon a Datgan Buddiannau 1. Introductions, Apologies, Substitutions and Declarations of Interest
2. COVID-19: Sesiwn Dystiolaeth ar Effaith COVID-19 ar Addysg Uwch ac Addysg Bellach gyda Chynrychiolwyr Addysg Uwch 2. COVID-19: Evidence Session on the Impact of COVID-19 on Higher and Further Education with Higher Education Representatives
3. Cynnig o dan Reol Sefydlog 17.42(ix) i Benderfynu Gwahardd y Cyhoedd o’r Cyfarfod ar gyfer Eitem 4 3. Motion under Standing Order 17.42(ix) to Resolve to Exclude the Public from the Meeting for Item 4
5. COVID-19: Sesiwn Dystiolaeth ar Effaith COVID-19 ar Addysg Uwch ac Addysg Bellach gyda Chynrychiolwyr Addysg Bellach 5. COVID-19: Evidence Session on the Impact of COVID-19 on Higher and Further Education with Further Education Representatives
6. Cynnig o dan Reol Sefydlog 17.42(ix) i Benderfynu Gwahardd y Cyhoedd o’r Cyfarfod ar gyfer Eitem 7 6. Motion under Standing Order 17.42(ix) to Resolve to Exclude the Public from the Meeting for Item 7
8. COVID-19: Sesiwn Dystiolaeth ar Effaith COVID-19 ar Addysg Uwch ac Addysg Bellach—Lleisiau Staff a Myfyrwyr 8. COVID-19: Evidence Session on the Impact of COVID-19 on Higher and Further Education—Staff and Student Voices
9. Papurau i’w Nodi 9. Papers to Note
10. Cynnig o dan Reol Sefydlog 17.42(ix) i Benderfynu Gwahardd y Cyhoedd o Weddill y Cyfarfod 10. Motion under Standing Order 17.42(ix) to Resolve to Exclude the Public for the Remainder of the Meeting

Cofnodir y trafodion yn yr iaith y llefarwyd hwy ynddi yn y pwyllgor. Yn ogystal, cynhwysir trawsgrifiad o’r cyfieithu ar y pryd. Lle mae cyfranwyr wedi darparu cywiriadau i’w tystiolaeth, nodir y rheini yn y trawsgrifiad.

The proceedings are reported in the language in which they were spoken in the committee. In addition, a transcription of the simultaneous interpretation is included. Where contributors have supplied corrections to their evidence, these are noted in the transcript.

Cyfarfu'r pwyllgor drwy gynhadledd fideo.

Dechreuodd y cyfarfod am 13:32.

The committee met by video-conference.

The meeting began at 13:32.

1. Cyflwyniad, Ymddiheuriadau, Dirprwyon a Datgan Buddiannau
1. Introductions, Apologies, Substitutions and Declarations of Interest

Good afternoon, everyone. Can I welcome Members to this virtual meeting of the Children, Young People and Education Committee? In accordance with Standing Order 34.19, I've determined that the public are excluded from the committee's meeting in order to protect public health. In accordance with Standing Order 34.21, notice of this decision was included in the agenda for the meeting, which was published last Thursday. This meeting is, however, being broadcast live on Senedd.tv, with all participants joining via video conference. A Record of Proceedings will be published as usual. Aside from the procedural adaptation related to conducting proceedings remotely, all other Standing Order requirements for committees remain in place. The meeting is bilingual, and simultaneous translation from Welsh to English is available. If we become aware that there is an issue with the translation, I will ask you to pause for a moment while our meeting technicians reset the system.

Can I ask Members if there are any declarations of interest, please? No. Okay, thank you. Can I also advise everybody that, given the Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee's interest in skills, research and innovation, I've extended an invitation to its members to attend this meeting. I'm very pleased to welcome Russell George, Chair, along with Joyce Watson, who is substituting for Hefin David, and Helen Mary Jones, who is substituting for Siân Gwenllian at today's meeting. Apologies have been received from Hefin and Siân. Can I just note, as well, for the record that, if, for any reason, I drop out of the meeting, the committee has agreed that Dawn Bowden AM will temporarily chair while I try to rejoin?

Just before we commence the formal evidence, I would just like to take this opportunity to record the committee's sadness at the loss of Mohammad Ashgar, known to us all as Oscar, last week. As Members know, Oscar was a member of this committee between 2016 and 2017. He was an enthusiastic and committed member of the committee, and I'm sure that we all want to place on record our condolences as a committee to his family. Thank you.

2. COVID-19: Sesiwn Dystiolaeth ar Effaith COVID-19 ar Addysg Uwch ac Addysg Bellach gyda Chynrychiolwyr Addysg Uwch
2. COVID-19: Evidence Session on the Impact of COVID-19 on Higher and Further Education with Higher Education Representatives

Okay. We'll move on then to item 2 this afternoon, which is an evidence session on the impact of COVID-19 on higher and further education, an evidence session with higher education representatives. I'm very pleased to welcome Professor Medwin Hughes, vice-chancellor at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David and of the University of Wales; Kieron Rees, head of external affairs and policy at Universities Wales; Professor Elizabeth Treasure, vice-chancellor at Aberystwyth University; Professor Paul Boyle, vice-chancellor at Swansea University; and Dr David Blaney, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales. Thank you all for joining us this afternoon. We're going to go straight into questions from Members, and if I could just ask the panel to remember, in the interest of time, to be as concise as possible and to not repeat what other members of the panel have said if at all possible, please. The first questions this afternoon are from Joyce Watson.

We can't hear you, Joyce.

13:35

Right, there we are. Right, I'll start again. Good afternoon, all. My question is to you all about the impact that this pandemic has had on you all—just a nice, easy question—and how you've responded to the emergency that you've currently found yourself in.

Thank you. Prynhawn da and thank you for the question, and thank you for the opportunity to present evidence to the committee. We anticipate that, for the sector as a whole, we will have lost in the region of between £80 million and £90 million in the period to the end of July 2020, and that is through things such as refunding students for their third terms of accommodation, lost summer schools, English language programmes, conference income and things of that regard. 

And then, for the next year, 2020-21—and our financial year starts on 1 August—we expect to lose between £200 million and £400 million for the sector. And that is due to the expected loss in international student income, which is a major area for us, as well as a lesser loss in terms of home student income. 

Now, this matters because of the number of jobs generated by the sector. We account for nearly 5 per cent of Wales's GVA and nearly 50,000 jobs. And of course, particularly for this committee, I also need to say that we do also provide the education and health workforces. We will be important, we believe, in the immediate economic recovery from the pandemic, but also the global challenges we continue to face. So, we are concerned at the loss of income in the short term, and that this may damage the Welsh economy and Welsh young people as we come out of recession. Thank you.

Just to add, I won't repeat the numbers, but we agree essentially with the numbers that Elizabeth has just identified. Two other comments just to make from a HEFCW perspective. I think the response of the sector, from our slightly outside of it perspective, has been really very impressive: an immediate move to safeguard the well-being of staff and students, an immediate move away from face-to-face contact to online provision and online assessment, which I daresay the sector could speak more about later on. That has been a tremendous response, and also the contribution to dealing with the broader effects of the pandemic.

We have been engaging with the sector, as you would imagine—both vice-chancellors and finance directors separately and governing bodies as well, we're meeting frequently. Governing bodies are clearly very much well informed across the detail of this, so I don't see that there's a big governance challenge, despite the fact that the circumstances are clearly challenging. 

The only other point I would make is that, in terms of loss of income, the challenge to the universities is this: as charities, they have to ensure that they continue to trade as a going concern. If they don't think they're going to be a going concern, they're not allowed to trade legally. So, with that reduction in income, it will be a challenge for the institutions to manage their cost base to be within their expected income. Managing cost bases, we might talk about later on, is difficult, it takes time, and obviously, as Elizabeth indicated a minute ago, it has massive local economic impact. 

Okay. So, do you want me to go on and ask about the impact on vulnerable learners?

13:40

Well, you've got a couple of other questions there, so, yes, if you could ask those, please.

Yes. Because, quite clearly, you've moved to the new way of working, and some vulnerable learners are having challenges to meet that. So, if I could ask what it is that you're doing, either collectively or individually, to rise to those expectations that are placed on those individuals.

I'd be happy to come in. I think I would just follow up with the point that David finished on: all the universities in Wales have responded very, very quickly, in a range of ways, to try to offer our provision, be that teaching, learning, welfare support. And, of course, as an absolutely key priority, the health and safety of our staff and students. [Interruption.] Sorry, my clock is going to start ringing for a little while, so forgive me for that.

So, we've put in place a whole set of different ways of dealing with this situation. If I could speak—. I obviously know my institution better than everywhere else, but I know that we have all put in a whole set of welfare support that, of course, has also had to go online, and to date, at least, in all of the assessments we've made, this has been extremely well received. Not only has the teaching and learning worked very well in an online capacity, but our support for vulnerable students, our support for those students who, perhaps, are most at risk, seems to have gone exceptionally well. And in conversation with our head of welfare, if I'm honest with you, they've been surprised at how well this has gone and I think will lead to different ways of working in the future.

The other thing we've all done is try to make sure that our hardship funds have been levied up, and this has been a challenge because we've had far more requests for hardship support this year than we've ever had before. We've gone to a range of activities; we've had some online activities, some crowd funding activities, various ways of trying to increase our hardship funds. So, to date, we've been able to increase those enough to maintain the support for students. So, in a whole variety of ways, we're trying to make sure, exactly as your question suggests, that the vulnerable students in particular have been well supported.

And don't forget, of course, we do still have some students who've been with us during the whole of this period, still living with us in our accommodation. And we've made sure that, throughout that period, there are sufficient catering services, that security are well aware of all of those students, that we have provision for any form of lockdown that may be required, and, indeed, if any of the students show symptoms, or had any cause for concern, we had measures in place to make sure that they were well protected and supported.

Not only that, we're also providing an awful lot of support to our local community, and many of our students who did remain in the area, at least at the beginning of the period, have been very proactive in going out and supporting vulnerable members of the local community. So, we haven't just been thinking about vulnerable students, we've also been thinking about vulnerable members of our community near the university.

Thank you. We've got some questions coming up around the impact specifically on students. Joyce, would you like to ask the second and third questions in that section? 

[Inaudible.]—I'll get used to this one day. The other area around vulnerable students, of course, is their mental health, and—

Joyce, I want to leave that until the later section, if that's okay. There's a question on degree assessments and then one on the housing issues.

Okay. Well, I'm afraid to say I haven't had those questions sent through to me. So, if you want to ask as Chair, it might be more useful.

Okay. Thanks, Joyce. Can you just tell us, then, about the impact the pandemic has had on degree assessments and how that was and is being managed, particularly for practical or technical assessments, please?

Yes, I'm happy to come to that question as well, if that's all right, Lynne. Much the same as we've had to do with all of our provision, we've put in place a whole set of new approaches to how we're assessing learning outcomes in a range of different ways.

Critically, we've tried to make sure that students will not disbenefit from the period that we've been in, and that's meant trying to think about how do assessments go online, which, of course, is challenging, given the nature of a number of assessments that are, clearly, designed, initially at least, to be done independently, and we have to be aware of those sorts of issues.

You've also pointed quite rightly to the fact that we have some assessments that are laboratory based, and we've had to work around that to a certain degree. In our case, some of the assessments have had to continue. So, for example, in the medical area, we've had to continue with some of the assessments and put in place bespoke mechanisms where it's been impossible to put some of the activity completely online. They, of course, have been done in a way that's maintained safety, and we've made sure that appropriate social distancing and regulations have been followed. So, it's a real variety of different activities.

Again, I've had no instances at all of students coming back to us complaining about the process. In fact, I've had a lot of students making comments about how well they feel they've been treated during this period. We've emphasised to them, of course, that we will take into account their previous work, perhaps even to a more significant degree if necessary, if it turns out that their final results appear unusual compared to what we would expect for certain students, compared to their assessments that they've had during their previous degree work. So, we're doing our very best to make sure that no student will be disadvantaged simply as a result of having had to move to an unusual set of circumstances, and, of course, there are some individual case-by-case issues of students getting access to broadband and various other things that we will also have to deal with. So, it is a challenging period, but I have to say I think, so far, all the evidence that I've been able to gather, at least in my institution, is that this has worked remarkably well to date, and certainly student complaints and so on seem to be no more than we would expect in a normal period of assessment, when, obviously, a small number of students may have some concerns.

13:45

Okay, thank you. You referred, Paul, to the issue of accommodation briefly earlier. Can I just ask how universities have supported students who have halls of residence as their main address and, specifically, how have those in purpose-built student accommodation been supported?

Again, perhaps I can come in there—

As Paul has noted, all of the universities have played a very key, proactive role in looking after the students that are in accommodation. At the core of our engagement has been the importance of well-being and making sure that the due process is in place, looking after them, the counselling structures have been there, making sure the support is appropriate and fit for purpose, and making sure also that the monitoring is there also. As Paul has already noted, all of us have seen students on campus, some international students staying, so it's been imperative that we had good structures in place looking after them, and the monitoring has been key, right across all of the universities.

Thank you. The next questions we've got are from Dawn Bowden. Okay? I can't hear you properly.

Okay. Sorry about that. Thanks for that, Lynne. So, I just wanted to take you back to the financial situation—so, the financial situation within the sector and the impact of student number controls. My first two questions are specifically for HEFCW. You've talked—well, we did hear a little bit earlier on from Elizabeth about the extent of the financial situation and the analysis of that, but, as part of that, can you tell us if any institutions are now deemed to be at high risk of insolvency as things currently stand?

So, I think the whole sector, actually, is facing significant challenge. I think I would be surprised to find any institution falling into insolvency, but the reason for that is not because they're not facing challenges, but because I think the institutional management will take the necessary actions to balance their expenditure, their cost base, with their income—expected income. The broader issue, really, from that is less about insolvency and more about the impact of the actions institutions have to take in order to respond to that challenge in terms of employment, as we've already heard, but also in terms of the contribution that the higher education system, if you like, can make to meeting the needs of Wales. That's the thing I'm more concerned about, actually, than individual institutional insolvency.

Sure. So, is there an opportunity for you to work across the sector, really—so, working with other providers to work together more collaboratively, more extensively and achieve efficiencies to unlock some other sources of funding? Is that an option that you're looking at at the moment?

Yes, it is. We have a number of things in train at the moment. So, we have established a group called the looking-forward group; if you can offer a better name, that would be gratefully received. [Laughter.] That is pulling together representation from the higher education sector, from the Trades Union Congress, NUS Wales and so on, to look at the challenges that are being faced by the sector and to work through what we might be able to do to respond to those challenges. The sorts of things we're talking about—well, first of all, a proposal to Welsh Government for some additional financial support. But also we're starting to look at the possibility of those subjects in Wales that might come under pressure because they are uneconomic to deliver and institutions can't afford to cross-subsidise—whether or not there is work that can be done collaboratively between institutions to protect certain subjects, whether there is work to be done to better position the sector in terms of online and blended learning approaches, and whether there's work to be done in terms of promoting the sector to students. All of this is potentially a rich source of collaborative activity between either two institutions or the collective more broadly.

13:50

Yes. So, you see those as the key interventions, then, really, do you, looking at, maybe, some of the modules available to students and—. 

I don't want to talk across you, but I think we have a really rapidly approaching difficult situation, and what we're starting to talk about are medium and longer term solutions. Now, as David has already said, we are having budgets approved for our next financial year now, and the trustees of the charity have to look to check that the charities that they are running—and we are all individual charities—are able to be assessed as a going concern. If they see major cash-flow problems ahead, they will have to take actions, and we are a very person-heavy organisation. So, we are looking at a very challenging situation, where we do need to have some additional support for the sector from Government, and we will be looking at how we work together more effectively. We already have a lot of collaboration between FE and HE, and we already work very closely together. Paul and myself, for example, work very closely on the training of medical students in mid Wales. So, I think we have to distinguish between short-term action to get us through a major crisis and longer term delivery, and it's all too easy to confuse the two.

Just to reiterate the point, there are some very good examples of collaboration between the universities across the subject areas. One can identify the Advanced Sustainable Manufacturing Technologies programme—that was a great example of how we collaborated and, for every £8 returned, there was £1 invested. We've seen Knowledge Economy Skills Scholarships 2—that's been a great opportunity. But the problem with that at this particular stage of where we are is those short-term cost savings are not there. So, as Elizabeth has noted, what's imperative now is that we can steady the ship in the context of the recovery period, and universities in Wales have a key role to play in the context of delivering on those higher level skills. So, I think the next stage is imperative in finding that stability for the sector.

Yes, I won't repeat any of the key points, but Elizabeth's point about the short-term considerations is extremely important, and indeed as Medwin reiterated. I would also say we have plenty of evidence of work that we can do in the future. We've just put together a working group to look at the research and innovation space and how we might not only work together across higher education institutions, but also work with other stakeholders outside of the HEI sector and try and position ourselves really strongly so that, when replacements for the European funds, and indeed the UK-wide funds that we have to compete for, become available, we'll be in a better place to do that, and I genuinely think we can collaborate more strongly.

Can I just also add a point? Just to remind everyone how important this is, the critical thing to remember is that the international fees that we bring in, which are very substantial, cross-subsidise a lot of the activity within universities. It's really essential to remember that we're not just losing international fees and therefore we will just reduce the programmes. A lot of our research and innovation, and indeed other activities, are cross-subsidised by that fee income, so there are threats to many of the elements of universal delivery, not just simply to our teaching and learning.

Yes. Well, thank you for that, because I was going to come on to—sorry, I don't know whether David wanted to come back in—some questions around how you're managing the non-English and EU student number control, and the impact that all of that is having. But I don't know whether—David, did you want to say something following on from Paul first?

I did, and I could go on to the number controls if that's helpful as well. So, the only thing I was going to say in respect of what Paul and Liz and Medwin were saying was that, within limitations, we can try and help institutions with cash flow, but actually the scale of this challenge is beyond HEFCW's budget to be able to adjust. We are able sometimes to provide repayable grants, but they are subject to Welsh Government approval as well. But, really, the scale of this is beyond what we can do. In fact, our budget for this current financial year has been reduced, rather than increased, so that makes the pressures even more difficult for us to assist with. 

On the issue of student number controls, we published a consultation in May with our proposals for trying to manage admissions controls. I prefer the words 'admissions controls'—[Inaudible.]—total student numbers. And the intention of that, really, was—if I can put it this way—to encourage good behaviour, so that no institution was trying to soak up all the available students at the cost of everybody else. We were working with the Office for Students in England in that regard, and had a very similar set of proposals, albeit that our regulatory regime is different from theirs, so we had different ways of doing it, and we know more about what's going on within our institutions, because we are just far more engaged with them than OfS can be; it's a scale issue. So, we had slight differences in the mechanics of it, but it's essentially the same. 

We were taken by surprise, as was everybody else, by the Department for Education announcing their own control mechanism, which, essentially, is constraining the number of English domiciles that can come in to Wales, and the punishment for getting that wrong will be that students seeking to attend any institution that's got it wrong in the subsequent year will not be able to get their full fees covered by a loan, which is an extraordinary position to adopt, in my view. There is a raft—we've identified something like 40 technical questions of DfE that we need answers to just to understand their proposals, let alone to determine whether or not they hold water. We have submitted those questions via Welsh Government and have yet to have any answers from DfE. We also know that various of the bits of the sector across England and Wales are asking similar questions and are getting a similar lack of response. So, it's a very unsatisfactory situation. 

13:55

Okay. I don't know if anybody else wants to say anything about the number controls or student admissions.

I think the other issue facing us is that, while we all accept why it's been done and the need to stabilise the sector, it's very unusual to have received that instruction directly from England, and it's very late in the cycle, when we already have made significant offers to students. For me, it's important that we treat each student fairly in what is a very difficult time, and, if they want to study in a Welsh university, in one of our institutions, and make the necessary entry standards, I believe they should be able to do so. I think there are potentially legal complications about what's being proposed, particularly if we're working under two number caps, one from HEFCW and one from England. We'd rather it was one and it was combined. 

Yes. Thank you very much for that. Can I just check a couple of things? I don't mind who answers this. I'll start with the cap issue first, because I know that's controversial, and I'm not saying that I think it was done in a particularly good way, but would it be fair to say that Welsh institutions were actually at more risk if we hadn't had a cap than if there was a cap, and that English universities particularly would have been on a raid of people wanting to come to Welsh universities who had maybe even accepted officers and then changed their minds because they were given, I don't know, a lower offer at a nearer university? Can you also say whether you think, based on what you know at the moment, that the figures that we've been working on for international students being likely to come here are more or less accurate? Because I know there was a real concern right at the beginning of lockdown about this, and then it seemed to ease off a little bit, but it may have ramped up again—I don't know. 

I'm wondering if Paul would like to pick up on the international and I'll start on the student number control. I think—

To reiterate, it was unusual to have received a letter from the UK Government Minister, and it would be—it risks getting contradictory messages from more than one Minister on the same subject. We believe we are still vulnerable to raids from England, because the English cap is for EU, English and rest of UK students. So, if there was a fall in EU students, which I think is likely, then they could make up their cap with Welsh domiciled students. So, I think it would have been much better if it had been possible to have one number cap that we were all working towards, which was, I believe, the understanding as the four nations were working together to implement the student number cap. 

14:00

So, does Welsh Government need to do something, then, that's complementary, shall we say? 

I might pass that one to David Blaney. I think there is—. I'm not going to recommend tit-for-tat politics here. 

I wasn't thinking of politics, I was thinking of just general balance. But I appreciate that, thank you. 

Yes, I think that's for others. 

On the international numbers, there are a lot of issues around getting international students into the country, for example, but I'm going to pass it to Paul. 

I think the issues around international students are very, very serious indeed for us, and for those institution with a high proportion, there's a serious lack of evidence at the moment. It's a very difficult period. We know that most institutions across the sector are predicting 50 to 70 per cent reductions in the numbers of international students who are likely to come; these are the sorts of scenarios that we're using. And all the evidence that we can gather from our agents and so on is that an awful lot of students are still keen to come, but are still very undecided about whether they feel that they can come as early as September. 

Of course, unlike the home students, or at least to a greater extent, there's a whole raft of external factors that we can't control at all. So, all of these entry requirements are a difficulty because most of the visa centres are closed or have only just opened, so there's a very large backlog in the ability to give visas to students. The flights are not available. We've seen in Australia the first two universities to start chartering their own flights from China and Singapore to try and fill that gap. And, indeed, there may well be Wales-level initiatives that could be implemented if indeed these sorts of issues became serious and we were starting to think about whether we might need to charter flights to bring students into Wales.

Then, of course, there's a whole set of issues around quarantine and whether students arriving from overseas would have to be placed in some form of lockdown on their arrival, and the implications that would have for them being able to start their studies, and also how they would be integrated during that period.

So, there are a considerable number of issues for us around international students; as I say, some of which we are doing our best to control if they are within our gift, but many of which are not, and, of course, that's meant that we are vulnerable, particularly to this coming year. It doesn't mean that the students won't come or that we'll have zero students; we're all hoping that as many students as possible will come and we'll provide a fantastic experience for them when they do, but I do think that, particularly, international student recruitment is very vulnerable this year. 

Okay, thank you. You may get some questions on student experience a little bit later. 

Yes, and, David, you'd like to come in on Suzy's point as well. 

I don't know whether I'd like to, but I will, seeing as Elizabeth lined me up for it. [Laughter.]

I think there are three dimensions to this. There's the whole issue about whether or not the UK Government is driving a coach and horses through the devolution settlement. That is essentially political, and I don't really want to go there, if that's okay. There is an issue about whether it makes sense to construct some sort of policy response working the other way. My issue with that is that there is a risk that English domiciled students might already have applied to Welsh institutions for entry next year—not this coming year, but a year later—and then discover when they get there that they can only get a loan for a reduced amount of their tuition fee. And that feels to me like the way in which this is working—the mechanics of it, potentially, have a really adverse impact on individual students, and I would be very surprised to see Welsh Government wanting to get into that sort of territory in response, because this is about students. It's a very clumsy mechanism that Department for Education have constructed; the only one available to them, but I think they ought to have thought a bit harder.

And then the third dimension to this is the kind of technicalities of how this is going to work, and there are so many unanswered questions at the moment that it's really very hard. What I do know is that Welsh Government are pushing DfE very hard to try and get answers to those technical questions, and that, in a sense, is what we need to start off with. We can only respond to something when we understand what it is they're trying to actually do, and the detail of the mechanics really matter. They're things like what time in the year are they going to take census data from, what's in, what's out and so on. None of this is clear at the moment; it's just a kind of headline policy statement, and the underlying detail just doesn't seem to have been thought through at all because they're not answering these questions.

14:05

That's the focus, I think, in the first instance.

Just very briefly to say that I agree entirely with David about the mechanisms, and I do think that it's been rushed through and, frankly, wasn't appropriate politically, if I'm honest. But anyway, that's for others to worry about. But I do think that the very fact that such a measure was taken, as rapidly as it was, even though we may completely disagree with some elements of it, is a really clear indication of concerns about the sector and the vulnerability, given the very significant financial implications this could have had. So, it's a clumsy measure, but we would never have been in this space if it wasn't as serious as it is for the sector at the current time.

Thank you. We've got some questions now on impact on students and student rights. I've got a couple of questions that I'd like to put to you from students themselves—as a committee, we're trying to keep young people's voices at the heart of everything that we do. So, the first question from a student is:

'Myself, my housemates and many of my friends are still paying rent on term-time accommodation, despite moving home in March because of the pandemic. This has been a big financial hit, especially with so much economic uncertainty. What is being done to ensure students in this position can access support?'

Who'd like to answer that one? Paul.

I'll begin. To clarify on this, I think the question from your student will have been a student who's living in private accommodation.

As I understand, all of the universities have taken the decision not to charge rent for that third term. And we took that big decision—in my institution, that was an immediate £7 million decision. But we felt that was the right decision, it was a fair decision, because many of the students were unable, of course, to continue their studies. So, despite the financial implications, we took a very rapid decision on that. And, indeed, I think every institution that I'm aware of at least has taken the same sort of decision.

One of the things that we've been doing is actively engaging with some of the private providers about their decisions around what they're doing for students. And, of course, remember this is a rather complicated space—there are some very major landlords out there that we can have conversations with relatively easily, and then there's a whole host of individual landlords who may rent properties to students and so on, and, of course, who themselves may be in financially difficult circumstances, so are finding it difficult to make a judgment call on whether they do or don't hold students to the terms of their rent.

So, we are actively involved in conversations, and certainly I think we're finding that, with some of the private landlords, those conversations have been productive—sorry, with some of the larger landlords it's been productive. But it is very difficult to be able to do this for all of the landlords. And, as I said, the very big challenge for all of us is that both the students feel financially vulnerable, but, in many cases, so too do the landlords at this time.

I think you'll find, across the universities, that all the universities have been working with the students' union to make sure there is a collective voice in supporting the st.dents on this. At the heart of all of this engagement is well-being. We acknowledge all of the pressures that students are under—all of these changes—and then trying to accommodate, then, all of the changes into the accommodation. And I'm sure you'll find, right across the university sector, that we've been engaging and, where appropriate, considering where the hardship funds can be used to support students as well.

Okay, thank you. And a further question, then, from a student:

'I'm considering doing a Master's in 2021, but how the course will be delivered is still unclear, as it involves practical elements. I turn 25 next year, meaning that, if I defer a year, I would be deemed independent, and will not be eligible for as much maintenance support. How can students like me be confident they are making the right decisions when there is still so much uncertainty?'

Who'd like to start?

Well, I think you'll find, right across the universities in Wales, that there's a clear commitment that the offer we have next year will be appropriate, will be fit for purpose. And, yes, it's a changing world, but at the heart of that engagement is a clear commitment to offer quality and to offer that experience for the students. And we are working through a range of changes, in the context of the delivery, and at the core of that will be an experience that will be of value to the student.

Don't forget that the student experience in Welsh Universities is exceptionally strong—on average, stronger than the rest of the UK. So, we are very good at making sure we provide a fantastic experience for students.

And exactly as Medwin has described, we have a lot of technical courses in my institution, and we're doing all sorts of things to reorder the content, to try and push some of the more laboratory-based activity a little bit further into the term, to make sure that there's a much higher chance that the measures we'll have to take will perhaps not be quite as strong as at the beginning. But I'm absolutely committed. Certainly, on the basis of the end of this last year, the experience of our students has been far better, I think, than we could ever have imagined. So, all the evidence that we have to date, which is only for a short period—all the evidence to date is that we can provide a very good environment, and one that where our staff have been extremely imaginative about coming up with ways of getting around some of these problems. Notwithstanding the fact that Medwin points out—[Inaudible.]—these are crisis times.

There will be some differences, there's no question about that. But for that particular student, I would strongly encourage them to consider thinking about going to university. They will end up having a fantastic experience, they will end up with a degree, which provides them as much tuition, and the standards will be set at such a way that they will be equal to standards for degrees in previous years. So, I think it's something that they should certainly give serious thought to. 

14:10

If I could add to that—our staff collectively across the sector are working incredibly hard. They're continuing with the assessment of this year's students, they're preparing for next year's, they're learning new pedagogy, they're revising their modules, they are making sure that they can deliver under a number of scenarios—total lockdown, 2m distancing, 1m distancing and normal.

For us, the biggest change would be if the public health advice adjusted from 2m to 1m. I'm sure you must have heard this when you've been talking about schools. It actually makes educational delivery much easier and allows us to deliver far more in person. At 2m, it's extremely challenging. However, we are adjusting the way we teach and how we teach so that we will cover all the material to a high standard if we are in lockdown or at 2m, and we are committed to that as a sector. 

I'd just like to follow up on the important point that Elizabeth just raised, of course, and that is, from a recruitment point of view, we could be in an extremely difficult position if Wales maintained its 2m lockdown and the rest of the UK decided to go with 1m. Now, of course we will abide by whatever regulations and rules the Welsh Government feel are appropriate and we will support them wholeheartedly. I just want to point out that, were there a difference, for students contemplating going to university that difference could make a very significant difference to their choice. 

It also plays into the previous question about landlords and cost of accommodation for next year. If it's more possible for face-to-face delivery, then students will actually have the benefit of using their local accommodation. Whereas if that's not possible, then perhaps they'll be paying for it but are unable to use it.

Okay, thank you. Suzy Davies. We can't hear you. That's better.  

Turn the microphone.

Well spotted, well spotted—[Laughter.] Thank you. Do you just want to talk us through fees a little bit? Because even though you're all saying that students, even with the blended learning, would have an excellent experience, how are you responding to some existing calls, actually, for reductions in fees? I'm sure you don't want that. 

Maybe If I start on that one, Suzy. Of course, fees is a difficult issue, and I can understand students feeling, both from the point of view of accommodation, which we've already talked about, and in relation to their fees, whether or not they're going to get the same experience. I think the critical thing that we have to keep re-emphasising is that we do believe we will be providing very high-quality teaching and assessment and we will be able to provide a degree programme, where the qualification at the end is as robust as any other degree that we've offered. We would not want students to leave the institution without that. 

So, at least, in my institution, the push for a reduction in fees has not been particularly strong. We've had some students come forward, but it hasn't been particularly strong. And I have to say, I've been impressed by the National Union of Students who, in the conversation with our own student union, have been very realistic about this. They do understand the financial impacts on the sector. So, they do understand the issue that, if there was yet another financial impact on the sector, in addition to the ones that we're already imagining, that, in itself, could lead to a much worse situation for the students when they arrive, if institutions are in such a financially difficult position. 

The other thing that I think we've found is that the National Union of Students is, in a sense, addressing their conversation not with individual universities, but with Government, and we'll wait and hear. But, as I understand it, at least, the Welsh Government and indeed the UK Government have both taken a fairly clear line that they don't see that there is a case for reducing fees at the current time.

14:15

Could I add to that, that, of course, actually, it's not cheaper to deliver in a blended way? As I've suggested, we are revising our material, working through it all, delivering it in a different way, putting in different activities, chunking it. Blended doesn't mean online with no real person behind it. There's a real person behind it who's reinforcing it, answering questions and, certainly, with both 2m and 1m distancing we're having to repeat small group seminars.

And then, of course, we've got to do things about making the campus COVID ready—literally physical alteration and more practical things. So, 'the costs don't go down' would be a key message, I'm afraid, Suzy.

But that's an important one for us to hear, as well, particularly as there's a separate risk that, if blended learning becomes the new norm, you may find that more students won't go for accommodation at all; they will stay at home and just travel two or three days a week, which again reduces a source of income for you.

That's not what our surveys are saying.

And the national surveys are saying that 18-year-olds, which is a growing—. I think we mustn't forget this a growing population across the UK. There's going to be—and I can't remember in how many years—100,000 more of them, of which around 50 per cent will want university places. That's 100,000 who'll want university places, and they're still looking for a residential experience.

Now, what we found when we started to put lectures online was we thought that would mean they wouldn't come to lectures, but they come to lectures and then they use that to reinforce their learning. So, I think we're actually developing the learning experience and giving them more material.

Let's not forget that if we've got modules that are in a blended environment, we can use that in the recovery phase of the economy, and I think it's really important that we get a lead from Welsh Government as to where they see the new jobs coming from. We need to work with you as to where we think the fourth industrial revolution will be, what the skills are, and we can then deliver high-skill graduates which we know will get the best jobs to drive that recovery. And if we can deliver flexible modules, flexible learning in a modular format, that will facilitate people who need to retrain. I think it's important I say that here today.

Medwin, and then I don't know if Kieron has anything he'd like to add as well. Medwin.

Can I come in on Elizabeth's last point? The real value of the work we've been doing with the blended learning delivery is how we can adapt that in the context of developing more higher level skills and short-term courses. And, really, when we come to the recovery, I think the need right across Wales, working in partnership through the universities, with the colleges, for short, focused, higher level skills is going to be imperative, and the value of that through blended delivery is going to be key.

We shouldn't also forget, of course, the unit cost price of developing bilingual blended learning materials, and that, of course, is much higher.

I'd probably support everything that’s been said, I think. We carried out a survey of all universities in the UK, and, in Wales, everyone who responded were planning in-person delivery in the autumn. There's a huge amount of work taking place, planning for all sorts of scenarios. What we will see in the autumn is going to be very different to what was essentially an emergency response to the lockdown, and I think we can be sure that students who choose to come to Welsh universities are going to get an excellent experience.

On the recovery point, we knew there was increasing demand for graduate-level skills in Wales before coronavirus. We have a less well qualified, older population than the rest of the UK, and the workplace demands are—the analysis suggests—going to change substantially in the next 10 years. But now we add into that the possible risks of increases in unemployment as a result of the pandemic, as well as, if you look back at the 2008 recession, the point that it was areas with high proportions of graduate-level employees that recovered quicker. So, in the recovery period, if we want Wales to be in a strong position, we're going to need to have people who can fill those roles.

I think my questions on accommodation have been pretty much answered.

Okay. Joyce, would you like to ask your questions on mental health now? This is very close to the committee's heart.

14:20

Right, finally I've found my papers that I actually filed away out of my own reach. So, yes, definitely—it is well known, isn't it, that young people particularly have suffered with mental health under the restrictions that have been placed on them? Of course, not all students are young, but, nonetheless, what we really want to know is how you're helping your students in these very stressful times to manage their mental health. 

Kieron, do you want to start on that because obviously we've had some discussions, haven't we, with Universities Wales as a committee?

So, I think there are a few different levels to this. Now, obviously, on a sector level, we're engaging with HEFCW as the regulator on sector-level strategies to address student health and well-being, and we're also linking very closely with the work that our parent organisation, Universities UK, are carrying out as well.

As we've discussed before, the mental health of young people has been a priority for universities. We've seen in the past 10 years a fivefold increase in the number of students disclosing a mental health condition on arrival at university, which I think gives some indication of the scale of the challenge. My colleagues from institutions in Wales will be able to talk a little bit about the specifics about what they've been doing, but, on a Wales level, when we've done some gathering on approaches, we have seen things like regular phone conversations with students that are still on campus to ensure their well-being; regular check-ins online with tutors and other lecturers; as has been mentioned, increases in hardship funds but also relaxing the requirements around those funds and enabling more students to apply more quickly and actually increasing, in some cases, the amount of money the students can ask for, as, obviously, we know that financial concerns often compound mental health issues with young people. 

I think the other thing that universities have been doing is ensuring that the students in this academic year are receiving regular communications on what's changing and what's being updated, how their assessments will be carried out—so, making sure that we can remove as much uncertainty that might be causing anxiety for students as possible. 

Okay, thank you. Does anybody have anything to add on that point?

I think Kieron has covered it admirably. We're maintaining access to our student support services, even although students are studying away from university at the moment, as well as for those on campus. We're considering how we manage student experience next year, and that's going to be challenging, depending on the social distance, about how we facilitate things that we know benefit mental health, like sport and music, when I'm told, for example, that a choir is going to be one of the most dangerous environments for the spread of COVID.

So, we're looking at alternative sports, non-team sports, facilitating the space we have on campus and looking at reinforcing the student support teams. So, there's an awful lot of work done around the whole of the student experience to ensure that what we're delivering next year and continuing to deliver this year will help support students through their studies. 

It did occur to me when I was asking you about the fees, and about the answer that you gave, whether that had gone through the usual processes with students, about whether they were happy with the agreement, whether all consumer rights had been met by the offer that's going to be made by your various institutions. 

Yes. The Competition and Markets Authority is working, actually, with the Office for Students and the Department for Education around what they're expecting, and broadly they're expecting us to detail what we will do under each level of lockdown, from lockdown to normal working.

But I think the other thing to say is that, through this whole process, we have been, as a sector—. Individual institutions have been working with their student union and their student representatives to consult on changes to assessments and degree programmes. So, that is part of our normal working, and we effectively consult with representatives of the student body as to what we're doing and the alterations we're putting in place. 

And that would include bursary agreements or anything like that, as well.

The bursary agreements are settled by HEFCW, but, yes, we always have representatives on the body that agrees the fee and access plan with HEFCW. 

14:25

Thank you, Chair. Thanks, all, for being at this committee this afternoon. What is the impact on research and innovation as a result of this pandemic? And, in terms of funding, is there anything that you think needs to be adopted differently in terms of funding in the short term and in the long term? This probably cuts over you all, but I think I can see Paul indicating. 

Yes, if I come in on that first. I mean, that's an extremely important question, and I did allude to it earlier. The research and innovation base first of all has, of course, stepped up remarkably well. I think everyone will be aware of all the work that's going on in universities, not just on the practical side of things in producing visors and hand sanitisers, but all the work around trying to find a cure or a vaccine, and trying to come up with ways of understanding the impact this is having on different sectors of the population. So, first of all, it's a great example of where research and innovation conducted in universities has really come to the fore, and secondly, it's so important to think about research and innovation as we come out the other side of the crisis. Research and innovation will be at the heart of growing the economy, and, without that research and innovation, I think there'll be significant parts of the economy that will suffer. And we're also aware that research and innovation driven through universities in Wales is proportionately a much greater part of the story than it is in the rest of the UK; we rely much more heavily on universities for research and innovation here in Wales.

So, I mentioned earlier that the international fees cross-subsidise a lot of the work that's done in research and innovation in universities. Some of that innovation work is very practical, it's engaging with small and medium-sized businesses in our local communities, right up to working with global partners. And, critically, if we're going to make sure that global partners like Tata and Rolls and Airbus and some of the others want to stay in Wales, we have to provide a great research and innovation landscape for them to embed the work they're doing into. And those partnerships are as important to us as they are to those organisations. So, the funding is really crucial, and the point you've made is very helpful in a sense.

We do think there are short-term problems here. It firstly comes from the fact that a lot of the researchers who are funded by UKRI and the major UK-level funding agencies, and a lot of their work, have been put on hold, so that work will not be completed. So, we're looking to UKRI to try and come up with a way of extending those grants for a longer period to allow that work to be completed. We're very concerned about the gaps in finances from businesses and charities. So, a lot of the work we undertake in terms of research and innovation is driven by business and charity funding, often matched by funding from universities, and that money is disappearing. We've seen a lot of businesses and charities, understandably in the current circumstances, pulling back from that research, which, again, will be lost. And it isn't just the research outputs; it's the talent, the people and the researchers that underpin all that work that is supported by that activity.

And then the next area is, as I mentioned earlier, the international fees that come into universities and a significant proportion of which cross-subsidised the cost of that talented research base. So, we have very significant concerns about the research base, and although I'm hesitant to point to other parts of the UK, you will, I'm sure, be very aware that, in Scotland, they injected £75 million into the research base very quickly in the pandemic in universities, because they understood the threats to the research base. If we lose many of those talented people, they are not easy to replace. You cannot replace the research talent in Wales, which is highly talented. We perform extremely well in UK and world rankings, but you cannot replace those people very easily; it takes a long time to nurture and develop them. So, there's a real threat, I think, to the research and innovation in Wales, and actually, of course, across the rest of the UK.

Thank you, Paul. I can see Medwin wants to come in, Chair, but can I just say to Medwin that, as well as the point that he wants to make, I think it would be particularly helpful if he could make some points where this committee can perhaps make a recommendation to Government in terms of funding in the short and long terms.

To focus perhaps on the knowledge capital, which is absolutely key for Wales in moving forward, Paul has noted that if we lose that, if we lose the capability to support research and innovation, if that funding isn't there to support it, it's going to be extremely difficult to develop that right across Wales over the next four or five years. So, at the heart of any commitment, hopefully in this period, is funding to support innovation, enterprise and research. While we've heard about the context of the Scottish Government engagement on the £75 million, we're at the stage where we need to secure the infrastructure that will allow us to grow as a country, and to see the role of the universities at the heart of that activity.

14:30

So, if I could ask you, being specific, Medwin, would you like to see the Welsh Government bring forward the same area as the Scottish Government has done in Scotland?

Well, the universities are involved in the context of constructive conversations now with the Welsh Government, and I think that's key, and we've seen the value of putting £75 million in a Scottish context to support innovation and enterprise. And at the end of the day, what we want to do is to secure a successful, sustainable Wales, and to do that the universities have a key role to play for the future.

I just wanted to follow up on that by just making the point that there's a timing issue as well. So, there is a need for additional support. I've already said it's beyond the budget of HEFCW to provide that support. There is, I think, potentially a temptation for Governments, plural, to sit back and see just how bad it is when the recruitment round of students realises in September/October time. By then it will be too late, because institutions will already have to have made the decisions to cut their costs in accordance with what they can see of their income streams going forward. So, there's a really serious timing issue here. We can't sit back and wait and see what it looks like come October. By then things will already be in train.

If I could just reiterate that we account for 30 to 40 per cent of all research and development expenditure in Wales. So, a measure such as the Scottish Government has made would be a very, very good start.

I think that's it, unless Kieron wanted to come in. If he did, then, following David's comments about the timing of that potential additional funding that would be needed, when is the latest time that the Welsh Government would need to make that commitment?

We're coming up to the last governing body meetings of the year imminently, so I think the case is now sufficiently urgent that we'd be talking about weeks rather than months.

Thank you. That's very helpful clarity. Suzy, very briefly. Please unmute.

Bearing in mind what you were saying earlier about cash flow and the charitable nature of all your institutions, this short-term situation, presumably, loans wouldn't cut that, because it speaks to viability; it would have to be a grant of some sort.

If I come back on that, we would strongly support grants in this situation for the reason you've just stated. There are also different circumstances in different institutions. You might have two equal institutions, one of whom has just invested significantly in their capital programme and in a sense taken out a lot of loans to do that, and a similar institution that's yet to do it. Each institution would be in a different place in their ability to accept loans. So, there are some institutions who would find it very hard to take extra loans on given the current banking governance they have. So, I think grants is absolutely the right direction, and I would strongly support Kieron and David Blaney's points.

This is about a short-term need in the first instance. There are medium-term issues that all of us can discuss in the future, and we will play a very central role in that, but there is a very serious short-term problem, I think, that we're going to come up against in a matter of weeks. So, we obviously are in conversation with Welsh Government, and we really hope that they've been listening hard to the messages we've been trying to put forward.

Could I just follow up that we have, of course, all been using the furlough scheme, VAT holidays, rent holidays? All the national schemes that are open to us we have been using as much as we can, and we still have a pressure that we believe is very serious. So, I think we just haven't said that, and that's important to say. We have been taking action ourselves. We've not just been sitting back, waiting. 

Okay, thank you. We've got some questions—well, we've probably only really got time for one question, Janet, I'm afraid, on your section, if that's okay.

Okay. With staff costs making up over 50 per cent of income in this sector, are redundancies inevitable and on what scale can they be expected?

The picture is uncertain as we speak today. You've already heard that universities, the councils, are considering their financial modelling and their business plans for the future. We have already heard in evidence that a high level or proportion of our income clearly comes from students, either home students or international students. The risk of redundancies, clearly, would be mitigated if we had a full cohort. However, we have legal obligations and we have to be planning and modelling in the context of risk.

I think one of the key issues for me in all of this is: if there is staff loss, I think what we are doing here is removing infrastructure and provision, and that is going to be to the detriment of building up a more successful Wales for the future. So, I think it's too early to give you a focused answer. But, as already heard in evidence this afternoon, the loss of students, and that is why the need for support at this period is critical in this period.

14:35

I think Medwin has given a pretty succinct summary of where we are. We can't be certain. A lot will depend on what happens with recruitment, but institutions are having to plan for, possibly, worst-case scenarios. It will depend on what support the sector is able to receive and when that support comes and in what form it comes.

A sustainable higher education sector moving forward depends upon clarity, I think, of objectives and action now, in the short term, in order to support us to make a difference to Wales.

You don't have anything you want to add on the next academic year?

Did I not cover that when I was talking about students' rights?

I suppose, partially. I think it'd probably just be useful if we could just get you to summarise, maybe, what you think September might look like for students who are looking to go to university in September.

So, it will depend on the public health regulations we're working under at that time, and to reiterate Paul's point that, from our perspective, it would be helpful if they were the same as in England, accepting that they will have to vary, depending on localised breakdowns, I believe. But I think it would be helpful if students had the same expectation.

We've all committed to delivering blended learning, by which we mean as much in-person learning, face to face in the same room, and then there'll be learning such as this, and then there will be online learning supported by real people and real academics. We're working hard on student experience. We're looking at sport, music, clubs, socialising, everything you would expect to do as a student, to ensure that that can happen.

We've got some very specific issues that I think are just worth raising with you: what happens if schools don't fully open in September and how that would affect student parents. If we are going to have to repeat seminar sessions, then we're looking at and have consulted with our student body about lengthening the working week, increasing the hours in which we would teach, teaching on Wednesday afternoons. Then that could provide challenges to those with caring responsibilities.

So, to summarise: the closer we are to 1m, the more in-person delivery we will have. But we are committed to sketching out for students, or detailing for students, what they will receive under each public health regulation, and delivering an excellent educational experience with appropriate social and other activities. Is that enough, Suzy? Does that give you a summary? Thank you.

Okay. Well, can I thank you all? I think we've covered a tremendous amount of ground in a short period of time, and you've certainly given the committee plenty to think about from your evidence. So, thank you all very much for giving us your time this afternoon. As usual, we'll send you a transcript to check for accuracy following the meeting. Thank you.

Thank you very much.

3. Cynnig o dan Reol Sefydlog 17.42(ix) i Benderfynu Gwahardd y Cyhoedd o’r Cyfarfod ar gyfer Eitem 4
3. Motion under Standing Order 17.42(ix) to Resolve to Exclude the Public from the Meeting for Item 4

Cynnig:

bod y pwyllgor yn penderfynu gwahardd y cyhoedd o'r cyfarfod ar gyfer eitem 4 yn unol â Rheol Sefydlog 17.42(ix).

Motion:

that the committee resolves to exclude the public from the meeting for item 4 in accordance with Standing Order 17.42(ix).

Cynigiwyd y cynnig.

Motion moved.

Item 3, then, is a motion under under Standing Order 17.42 to resolve to exclude the public from the meeting for item 4. Are Members content? Thank you. We will now proceed in private.

Derbyniwyd y cynnig.

Daeth rhan gyhoeddus y cyfarfod i ben am 14:40.

Motion agreed.

The public part of the meeting ended at 14:40.

15:00

Ailymgynullodd y pwyllgor yn gyhoeddus am 15:00.

The committee reconvened in public at 15:00.

5. COVID-19: Sesiwn Dystiolaeth ar Effaith COVID-19 ar Addysg Uwch ac Addysg Bellach gyda Chynrychiolwyr Addysg Bellach
5. COVID-19: Evidence Session on the Impact of COVID-19 on Higher and Further Education with Further Education Representatives

Can I welcome Members back to our second evidence session of the afternoon, this time on the impact of COVID on further education? I'm very pleased to welcome Dr Rachel Bowen, director of policy and public affairs at ColegauCymru; Dr Andrew Cornish, principal and chief executive at Coleg Sir Gâr and Coleg Ceredigion; Philip Blaker, chief executive of Qualifications Wales; and Denver Davies, head of monitoring and compliance at Qualifications Wales. Thank you, all of you, for joining us this afternoon. We'll go straight into questions from Suzy Davies.

Thank you. Afternoon, everybody. I wonder if you could just give us an update on vocational qualifications, where we are at the moment, concentrating particularly on any amendments that you've had to make to assessments and any issues that are still affecting practical assessments.

Shall I start there, just in terms of the framework that we're operating in? So, Qualifications Wales has now been working with the other regulators across the three countries that share many of these vocational qualifications. So, we've been working together to establish a regulatory framework for vocational qualifications in these exceptional circumstances, looking at reducing the burden on awarding bodies to make sure that there's a consistent set of arrangements for learners across the UK that would be taking the same qualifications. That framework is all up and in place.

Awarding bodies have been asked to place their qualifications into three categories, depending on the purposes for which they're used. Depending on those purposes, arrangements have now been put in place to either calculate grades for those qualifications, so that's where a learner would receive a grade that's been calculated on evidence provided by the college. Where there's a mixed purpose, there may be a case for either calculating or adapting the qualification, potentially a need to delay the qualification if it starts to move into an area where there's an occupational competence that's being tested. And then, lastly, if it's a competence-based qualification, awarding bodies are looking at adapting the qualifications where they can, but where they can't adapt them, to delay the assessment of those qualifications until such times as colleges are open again.

Can you give us some—[Interruption.] Sorry, did somebody else want to come in? Apologies.

Yes, just following on from what Philip said there really in terms of the three categories, FE colleges across Wales, as you can imagine, are huge providers of vocational provision and each has, over the last couple of weeks and months, been liaising with the awarding bodies in terms of which qualifications fall into calculate, adapt and delay. Some of that information from awarding bodies was changing as late as yesterday in terms of what categorisations certain qualifications fall into. Therefore, obviously, that gives the challenge to FE colleges of completing assessments for learners who fall into different categories. We are undertaking those assessments now and throughout the summer to ensure that those learners have some means of progression into what area they want to go into, a specific area of work, or continue on their learning.

Campuses are opening across Wales, where absolute safety is a priority. We're doing it cautiously and very carefully. But, even with the summer months available to us, that work may not be completed in totality, and we might be in a position where some learners' assessments will fall into the next academic year, and that's going to have both logistical and financial challenges for us, moving forward. But we are working with the Welsh Government very closely in this area of work to ensure that we can mitigate some of those challenges that we have as FE institutions.

Bearing in mind you've just said that there's a limited opening of the FE sites in order to provide some of the adapted assessments or delayed assessments, can you just give us a sense of what adaptations might look like, and also a bit of a steer on if a qualification is delayed, how that's likely to affect those particular students when they're in competition with their peers who joined the colleges a year later?

Certainly, in terms of class sizes over the summer, we're still under social restrictions, and we've followed Welsh Government guidelines to the letter in terms of opening up campuses. As colleges, we've been open throughout the pandemic, but certainly, moving to opening of campuses, there are logistical issues with how many learners we can have on site at any one time. Just to give you a flavour, at the beginning we were thinking it could be anywhere upwards of about 5,000 learners in adapt and delay assessments that we would have to service during this period of time, and, under the restrictions, there are obvious logistical issues with that. However, we think that that number now has dropped, because the categorisation of assessments—sorry, of courses—has changed. In other cases they've moved from delay to adapt, so therefore it's the delayed qualifications in particular that Philip mentioned would normally have the licence to practice associated with them that we are prioritising in terms of getting learners in, to finish those assessments as quickly as possible. 

15:05

Okay, thank you. Then just more generally, really—perhaps for Qualifications Wales, this one—what have you learnt during this period about what you might need for further vocational qualification reform, which is obviously a much longer journey that you're on?

Certainly. We're in a mixed economy at the moment, where we have some qualifications that have already been reformed in Wales only—so, health and social care qualifications being an example. We've also got changes planned for construction and the built environment, and we're in the process of reviewing engineering, advanced manufacturing and energy. So, we're definitely on a journey of reforming qualifications and developing Wales-only qualifications. But we have to recognise, I think, that we will be in a situation for quite some time, and maybe permanently, where there is a mixed economy of qualifications, because, in some vocational areas, it may be that the UK offer is the best offer that's available, so we would want to make that offer available to learners in Wales, and also wanting to think about those areas where it may not viable for an awarding body to develop vocational qualifications for Wales because the cohort size is too small.

So, we will always be in a mixed economy. What we are doing, though, is we're looking at the way that we go about placing controls around qualifications in Wales. I guess, in terms of the experience of this particular episode that we're in at the moment and thinking about COVID, it has been a very positive experience working with the other regulators. So, we have been working very collaboratively to make sure that we're trying to do the best thing and the fairest thing for learners. But it's also worth recognising that, as an independent regulator, we do have the agency to do our own thing, so to speak, if we believe that is the right thing to do. So, working together across the three nations hasn't necessarily constrained us in taking appropriate actions, but what we do want to do is be proportionate and be fair in the actions that we take. 

Okay, thank you. As witnesses will probably be aware, this committee is very keen to put children's voices, and children's and young people's voices, at the heart of everything we do, so I've got some questions for you that have been submitted by young people, which I'd like to put to you. The first is: 'My fixed-term contract with my employer is coming to an end. I haven't been working because of the pandemic, so I haven't been able to complete my apprenticeship. My friends doing A-levels have been given a qualification without an exam, but I'm going to end up with no qualification at all. Is it fair that apprentices are being treated differently, and what can be done about my situation?'

Who'd like to start? Maybe Rachel—would you like to kick off?

I think this shows the importance of apprenticeship retention schemes. So, we've seen a lot of action from UK and Welsh Governments to try to take the edge off the employment crisis that we know is coming, but we need to focus a bit more on retaining apprentices, making sure that people can complete those qualifications. I think there's a whole range of issues there where further work is needed and quickly, because, if people have come so far with their apprenticeship or their qualification, it's a complete waste of time for that learner to not finish, both personally and for the economy. So, we need to be looking at what we can do to retain apprentices and get cracking on that.

Okay, thank you. Does anyone have anything to add on that? Andrew. 

15:10

Just to say, Chair, really, that a lot of the apprenticeship work is still continuing online, and our training advisers are working hard with learners to ensure that their qualifications are completed in the same way as all other qualifications are completed, and it's happening here. 

Okay, thank you. And my second question is about AS-level students: 'What support will be available for current AS-level students who are doing their A-levels next year? We have been expected to effectively teach ourselves for the remainder of the AS course since March, but not every student has the space to study, access to technology or an adequate internet connection.' Who'd like to pick up on that—maybe Andrew? 

Thank you, Chair. Yes, in terms of A-levels, and perhaps I can speak for my own college here, I know we've been undertaking dynamic online delivery through the Google platform with our AS and A2 learners—in fact, our AS learners are still in this week, having tuition. I think the other issue that you raise there, really, is in terms of digital entitlement and, unfortunately, some learners have not got access to digital devices or even broadband where they live. And I think the FE sector, in particular, has worked very, very hard to support those learners to the point where they have been, over the last couple of weeks and months, transporting laptops to houses so that learners have the opportunity to engage in learning. 

We have been, over the last couple of weeks as well, as Philip will know, really all hands on deck in terms of assessment and grading for AS and A2 programmes. I'm really pleased to say that we've been working supportively with Qualifications Wales in order to achieve that task, and those grades now across Wales are in and that process has now closed. But, in terms of AS learners, they've come back and they've started preparing for A2, which is, obviously, the next year of study. 

Okay, thank you. Anybody else got anything to add on this? Rachel, and then Philip.

Just to say—I know that this is something that Philip was going to say anyway—that I think there are discussions under way to look at the curriculum and the content, because, obviously, there's been a lot of disruption this year—so, looking at how that's managed, given that there's been reduced and disrupted teaching time. 

That was pretty much the point that I was going to make. Just to also caution that, with A-level, it may be that the level of changes that can be introduced could be quite limited, because, particularly with A-level, we need to think about comparability with any changes being made in England, because otherwise there's a real potential that learners may be disadvantaged in universities' admissions decisions. So, it's an area where we need to tread fairly lightly and cautiously. 

Okay, thank you. We've got some questions now from Janet Finch-Saunders. 

Since the drawing down of FE funding is based in part on recruitment performance, what measures are needed, if any, to prevent a fall in provider income now and into the next academic year? 

Thank you, Chair. I don't want to hog this, by the way, but, in terms of this year, the Welsh Government have provided some monetary assurances for us, particularly for our core FE provision and work-based learning, and that's been really positively received. I think, moving into next year, I've already mentioned the delay of assessments. That will inevitably cause smaller class sizes if the restrictions that are currently in place are transferred into the next academic year. That will lead to more classes needing to take place, obviously more expense for FE colleges in order to ensure that that happens, and we do need financial support to complete that exercise. 

Also, it's addressing the skills gaps of some learners as well, particularly in the vocational skills area. And there may be a solution there in terms of widening the accelerated programmes that currently exist, where learners complete two levels of study within one year—for example, level 2 to level 3 and so on. 

Not on this point, no, thanks. 

Thanks. What is the sustainability position of providers in the sector? Are any Welsh FE providers facing severe financial difficulties, and to what extent do you expect funding to fall, if at all?

15:15

I think the challenge, to pick up on something that Andrew said, is around the smaller size classes and how that works, because colleges are obviously in the heart of their communities; they want to deliver provision locally. But if we're looking at severely reduced numbers, depending on how social distancing rules transpire, Gower College Swansea have said that in one of their kitchens they'd only be able to fit in three learners. I know Coleg y Cymoedd have said that, in some of their smaller campuses, with much, much smaller sizes, their issue is affordability. We need to be realistic about how colleges can manage smaller class sizes unless they get extra money to deliver more, employ more staff.

There's also the issue over deep cleaning, to make sure that we're really careful and scrupulous about hygiene. There are all these associated costs that nobody anticipated this time last year. Colleges are very good at managing their budgets and sustainability. They've been encouraged by Welsh Government to think more about diversifying their income, doing more commercial activity, but, of course, lots of that has stopped now, and that sort of funding is at risk in the future, so there are big problems that we need to tackle.

Thank you, Chair, if I could. Just to bring up the issue of transport, really. Being a principal in a rural college, I'm very concerned about the transport infrastructure currently and its capability of bringing learners on to campuses across Wales, because that is a real issue for us. You know, how are we going to get those hard-to-reach learners into colleges for the support that they desperately need? It's an issue, really, that I don't feel it's personally being discussed at a national level, and it needs a real focus moving forward, and very quickly, in order for us to plan effectively moving forward. 

So, what work has been carried out to assess the impacts on FE workforces? What are the main emerging issues and how are you addressing them now?

I think most colleges have surveyed their staff during the pandemic. Those surveys have focused on their safety and their well-being, and we've been able to provide support for those staff, whether it's through online packages, online face-to-face counselling and so on. They have raised two concerns, really, in relation to coming back to work, and we're working very hard to build confidence with those staff in order for them to come back to work safely. And some of the fears that they've got is around social distancing and being able to have social distancing in place when they're in work, and also the fact that they're worried about taking coronavirus home to members of family, which is totally understandable. 

As I mentioned, we're providing access to resources and we're keeping in touch with them on a regular basis, particularly those members of staff who live alone as well. Well-being is very much at the forefront of FE for both staff and learners, and we're determined as a sector to improve what we do, which is substantial at the moment. 

Helen Mary, you had a supplementary. You need to unmute. No. Can we unmute Helen, please? [Interruption.] There we are, you're all right. 

It's the headset. As somebody said earlier, 'We'll get used to this just at the point where we don't have to do it anymore.'

I just wanted to come back to Andrew's point about transport, and you said you didn't feel that that was understood at a national level. Can you give the committee a bit of an understanding about what you think needs to happen at a national level? Are there things that you think we should recommend to Welsh Government about that, because, obviously, representing mid and west Wales, I share your concern about particularly vulnerable learners in rural communities who will have been isolated for the past few months, possibly. 

What we're talking about is that you can get seven learners on a standard-seater bus under the current restrictions, and when you think that in my college alone we've got 3,000 full-time learners, spread from Aberystwyth in the north to Llanelli in the south. We rely on a consistent, workable transport infrastructure to get learners to campus. Now, some of those learners will travel—because they've passed their driving test, they will be able to do that—but particularly for 16-year-olds, who won't have that capacity, in some instances, mum or dad, or a brother or sister, will be able to bring them in, but my concern is for those learners who haven't got that capability. We will still have a blended online programme for them to follow, but, as I'm sure you will appreciate, for those very vulnerable learners, that face-to-face interaction, and that support that we're able to provide them as a college, is really, really important.

I think it's very difficult in terms of recommendations, because, obviously, we have Government guidelines. I understand the safety aspect of it. It's just a point to make in relation to actual recruitment of learners as well, because learners may decide to stay locally because the transport infrastructure doesn't allow them to do otherwise, and that's a worry.

15:20

Just to note as well that there are some cross-border issues. Those colleges that operate near the border with England—we need to make sure that we're synchronising transport. Coleg Cambria say that 20 per cent of their learners actually come from England. And, obviously, we want to make sure that as many people as possible can attend the college of their choice, and that means making sure that people can actually get onto college campuses. And the broader issue of supporting staff—we've worked very closely with the unions around our return-to-work protocol, and individual colleges have been having ongoing discussions with the unions, to make sure that staff are supported.

Okay, thank you. Well, we're moving on now to the issue of vulnerable learners, with some questions from Joyce Watson.

Good afternoon, all. I just want to know, really, how the sector in itself is supporting those who are vulnerable students during this time, and also, whilst we're at it, and we start the conversation, really, who you deem as a vulnerable student.

Who'd like to start on that? I'm looking at Rachel, as a cross-cutting—. Rachel.

Yes. There are various definitions of who falls under the rubric of 'vulnerable'. The colleges have obviously been trying to support all of their learners. Where there have been particular groups, such as additional learning needs learners, I know that colleges have been in regular contact with those learners and their families. So, for instance, Coleg Gwent have been doing phone calls with families, carers and individual learners, to make sure that people are supported and in touch.

'Vulnerable' covers a variety of different potential meanings. Andrew has already touched on the issue of digital exclusion, for instance, so colleges have been loaning out kit where possible. Obviously, the issue of kit doesn't matter if you haven't got access to decent broadband. So I think now, and in the future, there are serious issues for us to think about, as more and more learning moves online, to make sure that all learners are able to access online provision. The Deputy Minister Jane Hutt has made sure that, right down to things like period dignity, learners who maybe can't afford period products know that they can still get them from colleges. I've seen colleges using social media to reach out to learners on a whole variety of issues around vulnerability.

Just to build on what Rachel said, really, just to give you a flavour of some of the things we're doing. Obviously, we've got the free meals scheme, which will continue over the summer months. We've got weekly and, in some instances, daily contact with our most vulnerable learners online, or through phone calls. June, July and August—the campuses that are opening up will become student hubs, so for those learners that are able to come into college, we'll be able to provide that face-to-face support for those learners. Specialised mentoring, counselling services—most colleges now have got really mature systems for dealing with vulnerable learners—and particularly the promotion and awareness of schemes to develop personal well-being and health. We've done a lot as a sector online, in sharing the best practice, and working together, to create really dynamic resources for learners who are vulnerable to use—not just those, but all learners across the FE sector, but particularly those that fall into that 'vulnerable' category.

So, there will be—. Let's work on the assumption that we might still be in lockdown next September. So, what have you got in place to help vulnerable learners? But also, some learning has already happened, I would imagine from what you're doing now, so I suppose it's a continuous question: how will you take that learning forward, then, to support those students in the future? 

15:25

I think the online platforms that many colleges have developed allow that dynamic face-to-face support to continue online, and when that support needs to be confidential, that capability is there. So, I see that continuing moving forward. The real difficulty comes when you have a vulnerable learner who hasn't got the capability to access that digital resource that is on offer. Under the current restrictions, we can take a laptop out, but, again, if they haven't got broadband they can't access the resources that we've got. So, that digital entitlement for learners moving forwards is a key issue. I know that schools have had some money to support that, and, as an FE sector, we think it's vitally important that support comes through for the FE sector as well so we can reach the most vulnerable. 

Just to say that some of this is about ensuring that schools and colleges can share information effectively as well. So, where we know that there are learners who are vulnerable, for whatever reason, who are going to be attending college in some way in the autumn, we need to make sure that there's effective information sharing about those learners so that colleges can prepare to make sure they meet their needs as far as possible, especially given the new challenges of coronavirus.

I think I've asked all the questions in this area now. Thank you.  

Thank you, Chair. So, I wanted to—. Following on from Joyce's questions, really, what is the new academic year actually going to look like for students in FE colleges, those that turn up and are in the buildings themselves? 

I think probably Andrew might be better placed to give an indication of that, really. We're a bit removed from—

Thank you, Chair. I think it's going to be a blended approach to learning, and I think that blended approach will change, as the year progresses, depending on what restrictions are in place. It will be a mixture of face-to-face learning and online delivery. Whatever models that are moved forward, we have to be mindful, at all times, that we may have spikes occurring in different areas of Wales. We may have to move back to where we are now, which is 100 per cent remote learning and remote business continuity, because all colleges are working in that framework at the moment. So, it is challenging, what it looks like, but it will be a blended approach.

We are very, very mindful that the first couple of weeks of any term, in particular, are where, not only friendships, but professional relationships are made, and the foundations are put in place for either next year or the next two years, depending on how long the course is, with tutors and friends. So, I think most colleges are looking at getting learners on campus at least once or twice a week maybe, if restrictions allow. But certainly complementing that and supplementing that, then, with online delivery continuing. And, again, that pendulum will swing depending on what restrictions are in place. 

We work collectively as a sector. We feel we're very strong as a sector. We've worked together during lockdown and we're working together coming out of lockdown as well. It's really, really important that we're able to share and learn from each other, as well as working with the Welsh Government and the unions, to ensure that whatever we do is as safe as possible and within the guidelines that have been laid down. 

Sorry, before Rachel answers, can I just ask whether—you may all want to say something on this anyway—? Do you feel that you've got adequate expertise and resources to actually deliver this new approach to learning, the blended learning approach? Is that something you're all comfortable with?

Well, in terms of delivering the curriculum, professional learning is something that the FE sector has been developing over the last 18 months to two years. And the underlying pedagogy for online learning is very much in the uppermost thoughts of practitioners at the moment. Now, teaching is itself a learning process, so it's going to take some time to understand and appreciate the differences. We've had a real exponential curve in that field at the moment, but we're working very hard in my own college to give staff training now over the summer months, with that underlying pedagogy, and having an understanding of how teaching online is very different to teaching in a classroom-and-working environment. That is key, I think, to success in learning in the future.

So, that professional learning is part of the FE sector, it's inherent in what we do, and that will only improve as time goes on.

15:30

Yes, I was just going to say that, building on Andrew's point, there's a lot of good practice in terms of digital teaching across the FE sector, and sharing of good practice. But, obviously, there are going to be some staff who are more confident delivering digitally than others. So, any support for continuing professional development as people look to strengthen this area would obviously be welcome.

I think, in terms of what college will look like for learners who arrive in September, that depends so much on changes over the next few months. The 2m social distancing rule would mean that colleges look very different from a 1m social distancing rule. Just to come back to the point I made earlier about border colleges, there are implications for those colleges that operate in border areas. Where practice in England is significantly different, we would want to make sure that practice in Wales was as good. So, for instance, if colleges across the border are offering face-to-face teaching, fairly business as usual, obviously, Wales needs to do what's right for Wales, but colleges in those areas will then face learners making tough decisions about—if they perceive that there is a better offer, then there is a risk there.

Absolutely. It could go the other way, completely, but we just need to make sure that whatever happens in Wales is as good, if not better.

Dawn, just before you come back in—. Rachel, can I ask? I understand that, obviously, there's a training issue there so that everybody feels confident, but are you aware of any resistance from FE staff to actually doing the teaching from their homes? We've been told that some school teachers are very reluctant to offer virtual lessons—not all, but some—from their homes. Is that something that you've come across?

It's not something that's been raised with me. It's not something that I've come across. A related issue is that it isn't just digital poverty that's a problem for learners, but actually for lower paid members of staff; sometimes there is a digital poverty issue there in terms of teachers and tutors maybe not being able to deliver online learning as a result of those circumstances. But I haven't heard any resistance of people not wanting to do the absolute best for their learners and be as adaptable and flexible as possible.

My final question, really, in this section is about student numbers. We've heard that HE is very concerned about that. I don't know whether you've got similar concerns in the FE sector. I'm just wondering whether you feel that maybe the reduction in the number of apprenticeships that we're likely to see in an economic downturn might mean that you see more students signing up for traditional FE courses. What are your thoughts around that at the moment?

I think that's possible, what you've just mentioned there, in terms of apprenticeships. A number of years ago, we were asked by the Welsh Government to diversify our income in many different areas. HE is one. In the college that I represent, £5 million of our income comes from HE student fees. So, we feel that that's going to be hit next year, in terms of recruitment. 

I have, in the college again, 900 pupils from school coming on site on a weekly basis to undertake vocational courses. In terms of the transport problem that I highlighted earlier, how is that going to work? We're in discussions with schools at the moment in terms of how that can be delivered. We have the resources and the expertise in college. Does that mean that staff have to go to schools? But schools haven’t, in all instances, got the resources to cope with that.

The work-based learning, we already know that we're going to have a 5 per cent cut in funding there. That's going to have a reduction in the number of starts that we're able to provide for businesses as they possibly come out of recession. So, there are certainly some challenges ahead, and one of the concerns that I have serving a rural community is that students will tend to stay local because of the restrictions, perhaps, that we're under, and not necessarily choose from a wider range of options available in college that would suit them better.

15:35

It looks like recruitment across the FE sector is holding up pretty well; the levels seem broadly comparable to where they were last year. The challenge is going to be whether we can fit them all in if we've still got social distancing and how we manage that.

Andrew's already mentioned the 5 per cent cut across work-based learning; Welsh Government have also restricted some of the criteria for people starting apprenticeships further, so that may depress demand and there are issues over whether that's something that we really want to do at the moment because we know the impact of young people being disengaged, not being able to go on to apprenticeships, ending up not in employment, education and training. We need to ensure that people aren't put in that position, as far as possible. 

Just on that, can I just follow up on that last point, Lynne, about the capacity? Because obviously you're not quite in the same position as schools because you're not part of the local authority, but the conversations I've been having with the two local authorities in my constituency is to increase the capacity in schools as time goes on and they may look to utilise some local authority buildings, whether it's leisure centres, community centres or whatever. Have you given any thought to whether there might be a way of getting temporary accommodation in that you can increase capacity on site? Has that been part of your thinking and consideration as well?

Yes. Like I say, during the summer months now, at one point, we were looking at substantial assessments to be undertaken; we were looking at various outlets in industrial parks in order to undertake assessments there, and we've made those representations with the Welsh Government but we weren't in a position to follow those through. We didn't need that space eventually, because as we addressed at the start, some of those qualifications changed from delay to adapt and hence we were allowed to adapt the qualification, so it wasn't necessary.

Thank you, Chair. I'd like to ask a bit about transition to begin with. What support is and has been offered to students in the FE sector, the learners who are about to transition, either into further work or into study? Obviously, they'd usually be getting quite a lot of support from the college at that time. 

Chair, thank you. Most colleges—well, maybe all, I think—if not all have got well-embedded transition programmes for learners. We work closely with schools to provide taster days and open days, and a lot of those open days have gone online; I've seen them on various websites for FE colleges across Wales, and open evenings, very similar as well. So, those facilities are already there, albeit online.

We've had many careers fairs. I can think of one that we've had with Careers Wales at Parc y Scarlets where there was a range of businesses and organisations looking in terms of that transition. We're involved in the Seren projects, The Brilliant Club, Wales skills competitions—all aid transition into higher levels of working or into work. Employability support is really, really important and has gathered momentum in the sector over the last 18 to 24 months, and that has had a real focus. We've had support for that through the employment bureau from the Welsh Government and we're really pleased to hear that that support is going to increase going forward. That's absolutely vital.

In terms of FE institutions, we've always felt that we are at the heart of the community as well and meeting community needs, working with employers, gaining valuable work experience for our learners as well. So, all of those facets come together, really, to give what I think is a real comprehensive transition programme for learners. Depending on what restrictions are in place, some of those will not be possible going forward into next year, and we have to be—as we always are in the FE sector—very innovative and creative in how we meet that need, because people are always going to be employable.

One other thing that I wanted to mention is entrepreneurship as well. The ability to start up new businesses is very, very important for Wales, as well as inviting business into Wales to stay and to grow Wales's economy. That entrepreneurship and that development of entrepreneurial skills amongst all types of learners is really, really important.

15:40

That's really helpful. Obviously, a lot of this transition work that you were talking about, Andrew, depends under normal circumstances on face to face—a lot of the employability support and the kind of very basic things about teaching some young people about how to present themselves and all those sorts of things. Can you say a little bit more about how you are, or how you plan to adapt to support particularly some of those learners who may find it a bit more difficult?

I think it's providing them with either resources that we've already developed, or some sort of online platform, where they're not only allowed to have what I would call very specific tuition, or interviews with role models; people who have made it and been successful in business. I can think of one particular project that we've been involved in called the flexible adult learning project, which has engaged hard-to-reach adults who want to perhaps either upskill or actually set up their own business.

Now, I think we've gone out into the community in order to do that, but I think that project would work very well online. Providing that those adults can access digitally that resource, then I think it would work quite well in terms of how it's worked in the normal world, if you know what I mean.

I don't think we know what the normal world is going to look like when the worst of this is over, do we? That's  part of the challenge, I guess. Thank you for that; that's helpful.

Can I, then, turn to sector support for learners who wish to study or to be assessed through the medium of Welsh? Have there been any particular challenges through this period in continuing to do that? And has there been a particular impact on those students at this time, and is there likely to be, as you move forward? I'm conscious, for example, that those learning groups are often smaller in number than the English-medium ones.

Financing those is still a challenge, you're absolutely right. Sometimes we've run them in parallel, but nevertheless, they're a very important part of the community that our college is serving in Ceredigion and Carmarthen. The Welsh-medium classes have continued, very similar to other classes in a dynamic online capacity. So, we use the Google platform; other colleges use different platforms, but that gives a sort of dynamism to learning.

We're working very closely with Y Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol to plan for targets next year and to improve the curriculum and the provision and the support. When we appoint staff, one of the primary things that we think about is their Welsh language skills and do we need Welsh language skills, particularly for the roles that they face. So, in terms of the staff we have in college at the moment, a number of them have the skills and attributes to deliver Welsh language support, so Welsh language counselling, Welsh language mentoring, and if learners want to have the support through the medium of Welsh, that is available to them.

I think the key thing, moving forward for the Welsh language in particular, is that we view the Welsh language as an employability skill for Wales, and that is really, really important and something that was gathering momentum prior to the pandemic.

One of the challenges working in the vocational sector is finding suitably qualified staff with the confidence to be able to deliver in Welsh. So, in some ways, the pandemic has helped slightly with this. We've had support for Welsh language training for all staff, and even though they've been very busy, some have found the time to develop their Welsh language skills. That includes myself as well. So, there is perhaps a silver lining to every cloud.

Nevertheless, it's something that we continue to work on. Some colleges in Wales have been very innovative in working with Welsh-language schools, in providing joint provision for learners as well, and that's really interesting to see how that develops in the future.

Okay, thank you. And the final question, then, is from Dawn Bowden.

Yes, thank you, Chair. I just wanted to ask you about how FE colleges can contribute, really, to the recovery. One of the biggest areas of concern for us, and certainly for me, is youth unemployment. In my own constituency, I've been seeing the claimant count already, of the ages between 16 and 24, rise to around 11 per cent, and that's before we've had the full impact, really, of the downturn in the economy. So, I'm just wondering what you think the FE sector can do in helping to meet some of these challenges, and particularly around youth unemployment and adult reskilling? 

15:45

Yes, just to say that we've got the building blocks—so, colleges have already got good engagement with communities, they've got a good track record of working with young people and adults on reskilling, retraining. I think one of the things we need to think about more in the future are short courses. So, generally, the FE funding model looks at full-time learners, 16 to 19. Andrew's mentioned the flexible adult learning pilots, projects that ran recently. They were very good and they seem to have been very successful, but we know that, sometimes, if we've seen industries that are likely to be very, very hard hit, what people might need are shorter term, quick, flexible turnaround courses that help them retrain and go into other employment very quickly. There was a seminar with Cardiff University and the Federation of Small Businesses Wales last week, I think, where a representative from FSB was saying that what small businesses want is access to training that's flexible, that can be done quickly and doesn't involve a huge amount of bureaucracy. So, I'm sure that colleges are happy to deliver on that; we just need funding schemes that allow it. 

Yes, just to go on, I think the FE sector has been exceptional really in working with other agencies and LEAs in reducing needs over the last number of years, and they've played a key role in doing that with programmes such as the youth access programme, the Prince's Trust programme, traineeships, more recently junior apprenticeships. All those programmes are really important to get to those hard-to-reach learners and to re-engage them in learning again, moving forward. There's a strong history of working in partnership with employers, understanding their needs and helping them to train their workforce, to futureproof their workforce, moving forward. I've mentioned the flexible adult learning programme, but there are also personalised learning accounts, which are coming to the FE sector as well, and those and the flexible adult learning programme were aimed at retraining or re-engaging adults who wanted to retrain or wanted to have a completely different skill set and move to a different area of work. So, these programmes, in my opinion, need to be extended, evaluated and more focused on priority economic areas in Wales.

Just one more thing, in all of this, we must make sure that we don't forget about how important adult community learning provision is. Obviously, that includes young people up to the age of 25, but, as community learning, there's a huge amount to engage people of all ages in learning. We need to think about how we open community venues and make that provision viable again.

Thank you. Okay, we have come to the end of our time, so can I thank you all for attending? We really appreciate your time. It's been a really valuable session for the committee, so thank you to all of you. As usual, you'll be sent a transcript following the meeting so that you can check it for accuracy. Diolch yn fawr.

6. Cynnig o dan Reol Sefydlog 17.42(ix) i Benderfynu Gwahardd y Cyhoedd o’r Cyfarfod ar gyfer Eitem 7
6. Motion under Standing Order 17.42(ix) to Resolve to Exclude the Public from the Meeting for Item 7

Cynnig:

bod y pwyllgor yn penderfynu gwahardd y cyhoedd o eitem 7 yn unol â Rheol Sefydlog 17.42(ix).

Motion:

that the committee resolves to exclude the public from item 7 in accordance with Standing Order 17.42(ix).

Cynigiwyd y cynnig.

Motion moved.

Item 6, then, is a motion under Standing Order 17.42 to resolve to exclude the public from the meeting for item 7. Are Members content? Thank you. We will now proceed in private.

Derbyniwyd y cynnig.

Daeth rhan gyhoeddus y cyfarfod i ben am 15:48.

Motion agreed.

The public part of the meeting ended at 15:48.

16:15

Ailymgynullodd y pwyllgor yn gyhoeddus am 16:15.

The committee reconvened in public at 16:15.

8. COVID-19: Sesiwn Dystiolaeth ar Effaith COVID-19 ar Addysg Uwch ac Addysg Bellach—Lleisiau Staff a Myfyrwyr
8. COVID-19: Evidence Session on the Impact of COVID-19 on Higher and Further Education—Staff and Student Voices

Can I welcome everybody back to our final evidence session of the afternoon on the impact of COVID-19 on higher and further education in Wales? This time, we're going to be discussing staff and student voices. I'm delighted to welcome Joe Atkinson, who is press and public affairs consultant, NUS Wales; Jim Dickinson, associate editor, Wonkhe—is that how you say it?—; Dr Myfanwy Davies, council governor appointed by academic staff at Bangor University; and Dan Beard, Unison higher education executive member and chair of Unison Cymru Wales. Thank you all for attending this afternoon. We've got lots to cover so we'll go straight into questions, and the first questions are from Suzy Davies. 

Thanks, everyone, for coming today. Can I just ask you what are you anticipating as the student experience come September, as universities? Have you had any sense of certainty what's to be expected and, if you have heard anything, are you expecting it to be value for money from what you've heard?

Yes, I can start on that. Thanks for the question. I think this is a question that universities and colleges are still working through, really, and that they can't answer fully themselves. I was watching the previous evidence session and the best assurances that universities could offer, really, was that they were committed to offering quality. Now, we completely appreciate that, and we know that institutions and staff are working incredibly hard and in really difficult circumstances, but students are really short on details to inform what are incredibly big personal decisions. Students are under pressure to sign up to thousands of pounds' worth of debt right now for an experience that just hasn't been fully mapped out, and that's why a lot of students are thinking of deferring this year.

Sorry, can I just ask you, have you had any sense of resistance to what's now being called blended learning?

Not necessarily. I think that there is an appetite to access as much face-to-face learning as possible that is safe, and there's a question as to whether blended learning can truly provide that high-quality education experience needed, really. I think, for those who do sign up, there needs to be recourse for those students to have access to tuition fee refunds or debt write-offs if they feel that their experience hasn't lived up to what was advertised by the uni.

What's really clear is there is going to be that far greater emphasis on blended learning next year, and HE and FE institutions really need to ensure that students are fully equipped to learn from home. So, if they don't do that, then they're really risking some great progress that's been made in terms of widening access and closing attainment gaps.

And the last thing I'd add is that student unions right now and in the future are going to be vital in delivering social experiences and opportunities that form a significant part of the student experience, but they also have a crucial role in holding their universities to account, just like the Senedd does in holding Welsh Government to account. So, I think it's really, really important that students' union funding is protected at this time to safeguard that student experience.

Yes, thank you. In terms of planning, Bangor University is planning for two main scenarios, which would be blended delivery and some on site, depending on what the situation is with the rate of reproduction of the virus. We've also conducted a review of the pedagogical evidence. What I do a little bit, really, is to contest the notion that online and blended learning is in any way inferior to lecture-based learning. The pedagogy, the science behind teaching, has shown for decades that students don't learn particularly well in lectures; it's just what we have been selling as an industry for many years. 

We've also been focus grouping around students, and Undeb—our students' union—has taken a lead in that. What we know is that our students fully understand and appreciate the changes we've made so far. But they're also in favour of synchronised learning—so, to have slots every week where they would all learn together. But they're fairly positive—these are, obviously, the students that we already have—about the move to online and blended. So, I'd dispute that online and blended are, in some way, inferior as learning technologies or as learning media.

16:20

Just making sure I unmute. Look, the reality is that there are some students and some courses that work online, educationally and pedagogically. Clearly, there are some that don't. And to the extent to which a student might need to access a laboratory or a studio space or something more practical, there are real concerns about September. It's very difficult at the moment for higher education providers to provide certainty, but, to the extent to which it might not pan out the way that students would like it to, most of the risk is on the shoulders of students and their families. It's very difficult to back out once you're two weeks in—you have a fee liability, you've used up some entitlement to student funding and so on and so on. And also, you may well have signed an accommodation contract. So, it's really risky for students in an environment where there's lots of uncertainty.

But the other thing I'd say is that what we have heard from the evidence earlier is, to some extent, to focus on what universities can provide, and the original question was about the student experience in its wider sense. Clearly, what happens for the three, or seven, or 14 hours a week a student is allowed on campus is really important. But we also need to worry about what they're doing for all of the other hours a week that they are awake. And, if it is the case, for example, that we still have similar lockdown rules in place in terms of warning people in your household that you have symptoms, and so on and so on, students are being encouraged, often, to leave home, to move to another town or city, and we may be encouraging them to sit in their room all week and all day long, not knowing other people, when they may well be better off back at home in their residential space. So, this big push that there is, partly because of the student funding rules, and partly because universities want the income from accommodation, to get students to still attend residentially in September, is really risky if, for most of the hours that they're awake, they're having, effectively, to learn online. And the dichotomy between these types of delivery, based on where you're living, is a real worry for students.

That's really interesting because, having asked questions along these lines in the first session that we had today, we were told that the appetite for residential—people actually moving into halls of residence, for example—is still quite high. Perhaps what's behind the question, as well, is the quality of the experience, because I took Myfanwy's point there, saying that online experience is less valuable somehow than in-person experience. But there is a job of work there, isn't there, for the QAA to do about making sure that what is offered online is up to snuff. I mean, have you got any concerns about that?

I'm an academic but I'm also head of the QA unit in Bangor. This is a useful question for me. What we've been doing is talking a lot to the QAA and to our colleagues across the sector in Wales and also elsewhere. Our main concern, from a CMA point of view, is that we have to deliver the programme learning outcomes, because these are the basis of our contract with our students. So, we're going to be focusing particularly on those degrees where, for practical reasons, we just can't deliver, say, a practical component or a lab-based assessment or something like that. So, in these cases, we need to think about being honest with students about what is achievable within that year.

There's a vast range, though, of different platforms that we can use for, for example, performances, for oral presentations for language students—for all these kinds of things. And what's really surprised and gladdened me over the past few weeks is how fast the debate has developed within the sector. You know, these questions we didn't have to think about before, suddenly, we have to think about them, and there are loads more options there than we thought possible before. So, I think we can get a long way, but we need to be clear with students on what they're going to get this year.

16:25

Will that clarity also apply to examiners, because even though we may be—you know, how work is assessed is now going to be quite different, isn't it, if an element of it is online? Did you anticipate any difficulty with those external examiners when the time comes for looking at this new way of working and how to demonstrate achievement, I guess?

I think that's always a concern. We've had the first round of external examiner reports in for this year, and the vast majority of them are absolutely fine. The small minority that isn't—there is always a small minority that isn't, for various reasons—what they've said, perhaps, is that, 'You know, you've had a 24-hour exam, why did you go for that, why didn't you just go for a two-hour exam, because your question wasn't sufficiently changed for the context?' and we'll enquire into that, we'll discuss that with the school. But those are fairly—you know, those are quite rare events. But we learned from them, and we learned that it's not just a question of changing the mode of delivery, but also changing the way you ask questions and what kind of questions you're asking. For second- or third-year students, you shouldn't be asking them to replicate knowledge in any case; you shouldn't be asking them to describe what's in the textbook. So, the potential there is fairly wide.

Okay. Any other comments on that before I have my last question?

Just quickly on this question of quality, for me, there are two things going on, really. There are the learning outcomes—you want to make sure the learning outcomes are met for a student, but also that you've delivered something that they have signed up for. Now, for example, some providers have been saying that they would be able to provide an online year abroad. Now, it is possible to deliver an online year abroad, and still make sure that people learn the language and get the learning outcomes, but, obviously, an online year abroad is very, very different, and not what you signed up for. So, that illustrates the quality problem.

The real issue is—let's say that only 5 per cent of higher education students in Wales are not happy with what has been provided this term, or, indeed, is provided next term. They're being told by the Welsh Government right now that they would be able to raise a complaint and wouldn't have to pay full fees if the provision isn't adequate. The problem is the definition of 'adequate' in the pandemic, both in relation to September and now, isn't present. Universities set their own quality standards, and then those quality standards and the process by which they've done that is audited much much later by the quality assurance agency. So, the problem is that, even if we accept that universities are doing their level best, for those students for whom it's not possible to actually meet the standards of quality that people would expect, because they're not defined, it's really, really difficult for that minority of students to seek redress and to be in a position where they could exit their contract or not have to pay their full fees.

Okay. They do have some rights under consumer law, but maybe you haven't got time to wander into that today. Can I just—

Very similar to what Suzy was saying. We are bound by the CMA. There's a lack of definition from them at the moment, but it's a much tighter compact than you seem to be suggesting, Jim, because we live in fear of breaking our legal contract with our students. But there has to be some flexibility, because, usually, we would validate—we would take the provision to a panel with a change in the mode of delivery. Now, that's been out of our hands this semester, but we are very aware of our compact with students.

Yes, just finally from me, then, we're currently, for various reasons, operating in a system where there are two caps on student numbers. I'm sure you'll have your views on how that arose, but what do you think the impact of that's going to be? Is it going to be overall negative, overall positive, overall neutral?

Sorry, Suzy, which caps do you mean specifically?

Oh, right. Okay. Well, there's obviously HEFCW's annual cap, which is to do with the number of students you can have from the UK and EU, but there's also the cap that was the consequence of funding on the number of English students that can learn outside Wales, imposed by the UK Government for English students, which means that the—

I think—. Sorry. I think that's a retrograde step as a whole. For Bangor particularly, I don't think it has much impact on the students we're likely to recruit from next year.

16:30

Okay. So, you don't particularly fear a raid from English universities, which of course are trying to backfill slots—

Oh, I see what you mean.

We expect that it's going to get pretty difficult in August, yes.

No. It's going to be in August.

Yes, it's—. I agree with Myfanwy's point there, mostly. Look, the cap is what you got last year plus 6 per cent. If any universities—Welsh universities in particular—are hitting that cap, they're doing pretty well. They won't have a lot of major issues. In fact, they'll be better off than they were. I think the major fear is: are we going to see overly aggressive moves in clearing from English universities that have got slightly more generous provision than Welsh universities have got, because of decisions made by the DfE?

I think the whole idea of the cap was to try and minimise that, wasn't it? Because there'll be some—certainly, some English—universities that will be very aggressively looking for other sources.

Yes, and I think it steps into the devolution settlement a bit, which is quite uncomfortable, I think. 

Which I headed off, hopefully, at the beginning, because we could spend an hour on that. Thank you. 

Okay, we've got some questions now from Janet Finch-Saunders, who luckily has rejoined us from the ether out there. [Laughter.]

Thank you. Hello, everybody. To staff representatives now: can you tell us what experiences the workforce in colleges and universities have had since the emergency started?

Yes, no problem. I think it's been—. It's been challenging. Let's address HE first of all. In some ways, we talk about blended learning as if it's something brand new. Blended learning has been with us for a very long time. What's different is the scale that we're ramping it out. Some institutions, such as the Open University, they're built around that model. So, I think across Wales for universities—not the Open University—it's been that challenge in adapting IT systems and training, a new way of doing things, which has been extremely challenging. On the other hand, we've got some colleagues that have been furloughed, such as catering, estates, cleaning, who have got a very uncertain future at the moment and don't know when they can return or if they will return, which I might come back on to at a later point. 

In further education it's slightly different, because that blended learning pedagogy hasn't been there. A lot of it they're catching up. Some of them have got links with universities. There's a couple of colleges that are owned by university groups that have been able to tap into that expertise; the rest of them have had to scale up themselves or tap into what resource local authorities have got via the Welsh group. We've got some members of staff in FE who haven't really got the same sort of IT equipment or broadband that some of the HE counterparts have got, so we're seeing a rapid change in trying to get 4G dongles delivered to homes, and kit given to homes. It's been very frantic, very high pressure, and I think a lot of the staff are beginning to feel that now, which is not helpful as we're about to go into quite heavy recruitment setting and clearing in universities, as well as the equivalent in colleges. 

Yes. I think this period is an interesting one in many ways, but it really does risk and touch on gender differences—women with children who are academics have spent the last three months doing at least two jobs. The kind of contrasting expectations that we have of men and women in terms of caring responsibility are already clear. We're only 12 weeks into lockdown, but they were already clear in terms of research and journal submissions that are led by men and women in the past few weeks—you can see that happening. Men have greatly increased their submissions in terms of journal articles and research bids. Women have a little bit, but, as a proportion, compared to last year, women have fallen dramatically behind. 

In addition to this, teaching and research staff over the summer use that time not as holiday, but in order to catch up with their research, and this year, of course, they're being asked to spend the time developing online teaching and skilling themselves up, as Dan was saying, to do that teaching in a more sustainable way than has been the case in the last semester. I think at Bangor it has been a generally positive experience for staff. There have been efforts made to maintain a sense of community, to ensure contact. Some staff have been furloughed. Academic staff, I think, in particular have a sense of achievement as we've now reached exam boards and students are progressing pretty much as normal. We, in common with lots of other universities, passed a set of regulations to ensure that students weren't adversely impacted specifically by COVID—so, no-detriment regulations. The really notable thing is that we've only had to use these in a small minority of cases, so, for the vast majority of students, they've said they've continued the same trajectory in terms of their performance, so the teaching has worked. 

16:35

Okay. Thank you. What is your view on how the sector can meet the coming financial challenges, and what concerns do staff have?

Thank you. I think, in terms of concerns staff have got, it's mainly, if there is a drop in student income—the majority of universities in Wales are heavily dependent on student income as a proportion of their income—that we will see either job losses or an attack on terms and conditions, or a combination of the two. In terms of what can universities or other organisations do with the financial challenges, I do think we've got to think a little bit more radically and outside the box. Some of the stuff the Wales TUC is discussing with a fair work Wales is talking about the sector acting as a sector, instead of eight autonomous institutions. I'm not suggesting we should infringe on the autonomy of institutions. But, for example, looking at job pools— for example, we will have eight different job pools if there are to be job cuts at some point in the future. Can't we combine those into an all-Wales sector, or a south-east/south-west bid, whilst each institution, obviously, is having the legal obligation to redeploy their own staff? I think there are lots of things we can look at through the social partnership and a fair work Wales framework to do things a little differently.

Ultimately, though, we're going to need some sort of increased funding to stablilise the sector in the short term, whether that's coming from the UK Government, Welsh Government, or a combination of both. I would suggest stabilising the sector is probably beyond Welsh Government's budget and there's going to have to be some sort of funding from the UK, but I don't think that that's the agenda of the UK Government at this moment in time. 

We still don't know the scale of the likely shortfall, but, if it's anywhere close to the figures that we're starting to hear, it's very difficult to see how it could be met out of normal efficiencies. Dan's point was a really interesting one about job pools, but I'm afraid that that doesn't work particularly well in—[Inaudible.]—

—being able to move around. Support from the UK Government, while it's been welcome—thus far, it has been about moving money around, rather than extra money. And given the proportionally more significant role that HE plays in Wales, particularly in the west of Wales, in what used to be the old Objective 1 area, the Welsh Government really does have a key role to play in terms of discussions with the UK Government.

I guess a really transformative measure, from a Bangor point of view, that is within the Senedd's power would be to look at the funding mechanism for funding students from Wales in England. The scale of that support, or the support that that could unleash, would be huge for us. In 2017-18, I think the proportion of Welsh students choosing to study in England was about 30 per cent. That's a lot of money and, of course, it feeds the long-term brain drain, as we know that people tend to settle in the areas where they graduate. So, we don't know yet, but it's going to be a very, very difficult year. 

Okay. I'd like to ask the NUS and Mr Dickinson—can you tell us what students have been experiencing regarding their accommodation during this emergency, and have students who have had to stay in halls—

Ignore that one. Ignore that one. How well are staff being supported in developing online and blended learning resources and teaching? Is there scope for co-operation across the tertiary sector here?

Not exactly my area, but I know, from speaking to people across the sector, that there's been a lot of support via Jisc and other organisations to upskill. It varies from institution to institution. Again, it goes back to a point I made earlier on, that some universities have expertise in this area—the Open University in particular—but other universities, through being a member of the old e-college project, which was across south-east Wales, did a lot of this back in the early 2000s, so it's taking some of those lessons learnt and applying them in the modern era. All universities will have a teaching excellence department, which employs learning technologists to try and do this, this blended learning approach. I know they've been completely key, and have worked their socks off, throughout the lockdown.

16:40

I think we need to bear in mind as well the scale of the mountain that we've climbed. Nobody expected us to transform the entire HE sector to online learning in the last half of semester two of this year, and yet it's happened, and we've had students graduate. And as I was saying before, we can't find a large effect at all on student performance. Staff have adapted creatively, they've collaborated with each other. We've had online training provided for us, but obviously the timescale has been so compressed, this summer is really the time where we have time to take stock, and to really change the way that we do things in a way that's sustainable across the year.

I belong to a data group in the university that was discussing some results of focus groups with students recently. It was really heartening that students, by and large, feel satisfied with the experience that they've had in semester two, since the lockdown. We've also had two turnaround projects to do with teaching and learning. One's a review of the pedagogy that I was referring to earlier around online and blended learning, whether synchronous teaching, where everyone's in the same room, or asynchronous teaching, where you learn at your own pace, are best for students. So we're looking at the data and the research in that respect. Another one looks at the technological options that are available to students. So we're building this evidence base, which is completely up to date, because it's using evidence that was published last week, as a basis for decisions that will be made by our academic schools. The other piece of work that's going on at the same time is a scoping study of staff training needs, so the training needs can be mapped on to what the schools actually want for delivery next year, because no one size fits all, for chemistry or Welsh literature.

So it's a moving piece, but it's also I think a huge opportunity to develop our teaching in a way that suits the ways that people actually learn, rather than what people used to do in the 1970s.

Okay. Just on this then, Janet—very briefly—and then I'll bring Jim in to start, if that's okay, if he's got anything he'd like to say in relation to this whole issue.

And then if you could cover the experience of casual and fixed-term contract staff, and if you are concerned about what will happen to them.

Jim, would you like to start in this section? Can you unmute, please?

Yes, sorry. We heard earlier that, in relation to September, universities are charities, they're going to have to think about how they balance the books. Students are being told to be confident about delivery, but are being simultaneously told, 'We might have to make significant savings reductions.' Now, where do those savings reductions come from? They're much more likely to come from staff than things, because that's where we spend most of our money, and it's much easier to let go of temporary, sessional, casual, postgraduates that teach, and so on. And if that happens, we end up with a significant amount of pressure being put on existing academic staff, when they're also being asked to teach in a completely different way, provide extra support to students, and so on. So, something has to give. There are two aspects to that, I think. It can't be simultaneously true that students should be confident about September and that, without a bailout, or without additional funding either from Westminster or from Cardiff Bay, everything will be fine. Those two things can't be simultaneously true. But on the staff question specifically, it must be true that, if universities are having to look really hard at their budgets to balance the books, that will mean that temporary, sessional staff are the ones to go first. And as I say, that puts huge amounts of pressure on the careers of the existing permanent staff that are around, both in terms of professional services and academics in universities.

Okay. Thank you. Dan, you indicated you'd like to come in on this—briefly, please.

Yes. Jim made the point for me: I think that any—. The fixed-term staff, zero-hours contract staff—whatever terminology you want to use—they're always the first to be at risk because it's cheaper to get rid of them. But it will put substantial pressure on existing staff, whether that's academic, academic-related, or professional support staff.

Yes, absolutely, I completely concur with the points about professional and existing staff. The other thing I'd like to say is that fixed-term contract staff or the early career researchers, the early career academics, this is where we get our innovation from, it's where we get our research-led teaching from, and it's where we really shouldn't be cutting. But it is likely, because of the practical constraints you have with people's contracts, that may well be a decision that has to be made by institutions.

16:45

Okay, thank you. We're going to move on now to talk about student rights. Before I bring Dawn in, I'd like to put to you a question that's been provided by a young person. We're trying to give a voice to young people's concerns in all our meetings. So, can I just ask this: 'Many students work seasonal jobs when they aren't studying to support their education. I lost my seasonal job because of lockdown and I could not be furloughed as I wasn't working at the time. Many students like me have lost a significant amount of income, but costs have remained the same. How will students who rely on this sort of work be supported to continue in education?' Joe, would you like to start on that? 

Yes. We're hearing cases like this all the time, ourselves and member student unions. Students are coming into them all the time with issues that sound quite like this. I don't want to pre-empt questions on student support too much, but for students who usually depend on part-time work, like a seasonal job, for example, there's a real need for additional support, not only now, but in the future. We've seen the hospitality, tourism and leisure sectors shut down altogether basically, during lockdown, and these sectors are really popular for student jobs. And when the furlough scheme ends, it's hard to see how all those jobs can be maintained further, so we're going to see a lot of jobs going, even more so. I think we need basically greater hardship funding in Wales to alleviate this for students. We conducted a survey, at the beginning of April, on students' attitudes towards the crisis, and more than half the students told us that they work alongside their studies, and these jobs aren't just going to pop back up. Those students absolutely need support. 

Thank you, Chair. I just wanted to—. This is to Jim and to Joe, really. Jim, you were talking earlier on about student accommodation and whether students are actually best placed staying in their accommodation or actually going home in terms of their learning experiences and so on. But have you picked up any experiences of students who feel that they have to stay in their halls of residence and what they've had to deal with as a result of that? 

Joe, do you want to—?

Yes, sure. So, I think I've seen estimates that about 70 per cent of students returned home—up to 70 per cent of students returned home—for lockdown. That leaves about 30 per cent of students who stayed. The reasons for that are quite varied: they could be international students who aren't able to afford to get home; it could be students who have parents or carers who are regarded as vulnerable to the virus, so obviously those students don't want to risk taking the virus back to their families; and there are some, perhaps mature students, or any students in fact, who don't have a family home to go back to at all and their university residence is their permanent residence. 

In terms of issues faced by those students, it's primarily been the issue of isolation and mental health. But also, for students who are staying in shared accommodation—especially in student halls and high-rise student flats—there are public health implications of sharing kitchens, sharing living spaces, that obviously have had to be worked through. So, they're the main issues that we've come across in this instance.

And what about any issues that they're facing in terms of their accommodation for next year? Any issues with their providers, particularly the purpose-built student accommodation? Are there any particular concerns around that? Or is all that being put to one side and we're just having to wait and see what happens? 

Look, clearly, what's interesting about the student accommodation thing for this term is that whilst university-owned-and-run halls of residence, by and large, gave rent relief for this term, the picture is much more mixed, as was said earlier, both in PBSA providers and in houses in multiple occupation. Now, that then has a significant impact on what happens in September. So, let's say that we went into lockdown again, because of a winter spike, or let's say that powers were given to parts of Wales to have targeted lockdowns—let's say Ceredigion wanted to clear everyone out of Aber again in order to have one of the lowest infection rates in the UK—in order to do that, we would then need to be in a position where universities were having to do rent relief for the entire academic year—a much harder thing to do for most of then—and we already know that most HMO landlords haven't done that, and a lot of PBSA providers haven't done that. So, the risks going into September around student accommodation are huge, having already spotted that the risks were very difficult now.

I guess the other thing I'd say is that lots of students feel that they have to sign an accommodation contract about seven to nine months before they start. So, lots of students signed an accommodation contract last December. Now, if their course is all over, or it can't be delivered, or they're desperate to drop out, they're in a really, really tough predicament. Really tough, and the hardship funds won't cover it.

16:50

No, I appreciate that. So, have we seen any of these providers and PBSAs actually trying to change the terms of contracts during this period?

None yet. Okay. Okay. All right. My final question in this section, really, is about whether the sector has managed the challenges that it's faced over the emergency in line with consumer law. I think Suzy was mentioning consumer law earlier on. Can you give us any examples of where that's worked well or hasn't worked quite so well?

Broadly, although consumer law isn't a great fit, in theory, providers of a service are supposed to tell you the features of the service so that you can decide (1) whether or not to take it up, and (2) which provider to go for in terms of the service being provided. Now, in this part of the pandemic, it's clear that to the extent to which providers had clauses in their student university contracts that allowed them to not deliver because of an emergency or circumstances outside of their control, that's sort of where we are and most students have been accepting of that. The bigger challenge is September. So, given all of the risk that I've talked about, because there aren't other ways to protect students from the risk, what we're asking students to do is accept that universities will do their best when they're not really sure what they're going to be able to provide or how they're going to be able to provide it, and in some cases are taking gambles around providing practical elements later in the academic year and so on. Now, that can't be compatible with consumer law if it ended up in court.

The problem that students have got is that it's incredibly difficult to get that far, it's very expensive for a student in order to use their rights under consumer law, and for obvious reasons student unions are a bit nervous about encouraging students to use their rights under consumer law, because it might bankrupt the university where they are working in partnership with the university. So, the consumer law stuff is really, really tough, because lots and lots of people don't really want students to take up their rights. That's probably reasonable in a lot of cases—we're all in this together, it's a pandemic. But certainly, for some students in some scenarios, that's really, really tough, and there's little evidence that students are able to use their rights in the traditional way by going to the courts or going to their citizens advice bureau or whatever that might be.

Have you had many examples that you're aware of where, actually, in a normal set of circumstances, you'd say, 'Hang on a minute, we ought to be thinking about looking at this in terms of whether your rights have been breached' or, generally, have students been treated quite well during this period?

Well, hundreds of thousands of students have said they're not happy with paying the same amount of money for something that is online. Now, the university position is reasonable, which is: it costs as much, if not more; we've not been given more money to do it with; and we've got some online equivalent. But I'd just draw to the committee's attention the paradox of the online year abroad again. Of course it is the case that you can deliver an online year aboard and deliver similar learning objectives. But, obviously, if you're about to go on holiday, it wouldn’t be acceptable for someone to send you some YouTube videos of swimming in the pool. Now, there are aspects of the educational experience that are not dissimilar, in all seriousness, to long-term educational tourism, and that's really important for some students, because of access to facilities and other people and so on.

So, technically, students have rights in this scenario. Clearly, universities aren't really in a position to meet those rights, and it's probably a problem that, in the end, Governments need to solve, in terms of debt relief and being able to fund the sorts of refunds that, probably, students should need if they were all to end up in court.

I'd echo Jim's point about the power imbalance: wealthy students take their universities to court, not the vast majority of students. I think it comes down to having a clear minimum undertaking from universities—what you can definitely offer in the year ahead in terms of delivering—[Inaudible.] The online year abroad is clearly—[Inaudible.]—we're certainly not offering one in Bangor. But we do usually offer years abroad, so we're now thinking about how we might deliver that in a more compact way with some online elements. But it comes down to defining what you can deliver in a worst-case scenario. But also, we're waiting for guidelines from the CMA. There have been guidelines for the aeronautical industry, there have been guidelines for various industries, but we've yet to see detailed guidelines for HE and we would really like to see that, because in planning for our approach to next year, which we've had to do, we've had to rely on the Office for Students, which is not usually where we would go to for guidance on consumer law. 

16:55

Okay, thank you. The next questions are on vulnerable students and mental health, and I'd like to put one to you that a young person has given to us: 

'I am a Master's student who is graduating this year. I also have a physical disability. I'm worried that COVID-19 will negatively impact work and employability opportunities for students like me from widening-access backgrounds. What support will be available after I graduate to help me find work?'

Joe, do you want to start with that one?

Yes, sure. So, our coronavirus student survey found that 76 per cent of students are worried about their job prospects because of this pandemic. So, we saw announcements last week of up to £40 million of Welsh Government funding for upskilling and employability, and that's specified for people who are hardest hit by the economic impact of COVID-19, which includes young people. We'd like to see more details on that funding, but one thing that we've been calling for as NUS is a Government grant that allows every single student who is graduating from any form of further education and higher education this year to be able to access an additional year of education and training. Now, we recognise it's a significant investment and we think that would probably require more than just Welsh Government can afford, so we think this needs to be a UK Government initiative with consequentials that then flow to Wales.

Yes, very quickly. Just on a similar subject, we've got the same problems in both FE and particularly blended learning. I mean, a lot of people from widening-access backgrounds will go in through the FE route or through the work-based learning route. The funding being cut for work-based learning—that is going to further disadvantage these young people and we've got some serious concerns on that cut.

I just want to move on now to mental health and the support that's being given particularly to students—whether you think it's been adequate. Has it been monitored? I know that HE and FE are autonomous, but is there anything that you would like to tell Welsh Government, or for us to tell the Welsh Government on your behalf?

Well, we were interested to hear the universities' and colleges' responses to this question in previous sessions. It's true there has been a real focus on student mental health in the sector in general and Welsh Government in recent years. We've been meeting with student union representatives every single week since this crisis kicked off, and while we're certainly concerned about the mental health impacts of the situation on students, institutions and SUs in general do seem to be working together to provide mental health support that works in an online setting. There's also been a big push to keep in contact with students who have been living alone during lockdown, as was mentioned before. I think we just need to be mindful that this is going to be a long-term issue, with students likely to face spells of isolation if local lockdowns are imposed. So, any funding for these services just can't be treated as a one-off. 

Thank you. Nobody's got anything to add on that. Joyce, have you finished? 

Thank you, Chair. We've begun to touch on this briefly in answers to previous questions, but at the moment there's no additional financial support from Welsh Government for students. Is there a need for that in your view, and if so, what shape or form should that take? We've mentioned the idea of a grant to cover an additional year's education, but is there anything you'd add to that?

17:00

Funding for students who are facing financial hardship needs to be greatly increased. The Scottish Government has so far committed more than £15 million to student hardship. The Northern Ireland Executive has allocated 1.4 million to student hardship with more expected. Even the UK Government has allowed universities in England to repurpose up to £46 million in cash to support students who are facing financial hardship, and we're seeing no such funding for students in Wales yet of this sort. Instead, Welsh Government is referring students who are facing financial difficulties to their institution's hardship funds. These funds are designed to deal with student hardship in normal circumstances, not a global pandemic, so universities have had to top up their hardship funds through fundraising. I think I heard that the vice-chancellor of Cardiff uni is taking a 20 per cent pay cut in order to put that into their hardship fund for students and staff, and that's incredibly admirable, but it's hardly a sustainable approach, especially as institutions start to face increasing financial pressures.

As was mentioned in previous sessions, universities are receiving more applications to these funds than ever before, and our student survey found that 78 per cent of students in Wales are worried about their finances, and a further 73 per cent are worried about just paying rent. To add to that, 47 per cent said someone that they depend on financially is seeing their income affected by COVID-19, so it's also student support networks that are being affected. And as discussed previously, many students are still footing the bill for housing that they don't live in anymore. And most full-time students can't access universal credit, and because a lot of students in employment are in seasonal casual employment contracts, and only work at certain times of the year, a lot weren't furloughed. So, there's a real gap in support for students in Wales.

And, indeed, the collapse of the part-time job market has put students who have to work to pay for their education in a really, really difficult position. Almost half of students who we surveyed told us that their income from their work had fallen because of COVID-19, and as that furlough scheme comes to an end, as I mentioned before, it's likely that there'll be even more job losses and there just won't be these opportunities. So, a lot of students who work: they haven't been furloughed because they work those seasonal jobs, and if they weren't on the payroll before 19 March, they weren't eligible to be furloughed. So, I think there's a stack of evidence to show that we need more support for students right now and we think that should be through a hardship fund, both now and into the coming academic years, when students just won't have the same access to finances.

Very quickly, in relation to the summer, although Wales has a comparatively generous student maintenance settlement, certainly in terms of the cash in students' pockets, every part of the UK makes an assumption that students are able to work during the summer in order to fund their undergraduate degree. Now, clearly, that's not an option that's available to the vast majority of students this summer, even where parts of the leisure and tourism industry are talking about reopening if the social distancing stuff eases. What they're talking about is being able to give work to their full-time permanent career staff, not necessarily large numbers of casual staff that might work in tourism or the leisure industry. And then in September, if we're in a position where things contract again, or you've got local lockdowns and so on, it's certainly not students that are going to be able to access large numbers of part-time jobs, so this thing about the summer in relation to universal credit is a real issue. Not every country in the world restricts students from being able to access benefits during the summer. We're certainly one of them, but to give you an example, Canada recognised this some weeks ago and took steps to make sure that students were able to access student funding across the summer, and it's fairly clear, I think, that that probably ought to apply, given the scenario we're in right across the UK and very specifically in Wales.

Thank you. Very important point there. I remember the days when we used to get benefits in the summer. Helen Mary.

Thank you. I wonder if you've got any views about whether or not students are getting a satisfactory service from Student Finance Wales during the emergency.

Who'd like to start? You're going to have to be brief, I'm afraid. Joe.

So, we heard that Student Finance Wales weren't contactable via phone or social media for the first couple of weeks of lockdown, because they were adapting to working from home. So, that was far from ideal at a time of such uncertainty for students, both in HE and FE. We've had quite a few concerns raised, especially from students in FE about websites being down and that sort of thing, so it has been a point of frustration to quite a lot of the students.

17:05

No, nothing in terms of the service. There's obviously this ongoing question about the rules that relate to distance learning, whether you're attending an institution, the circumstances under which you would be entitled to student funding. And, clearly, this term, what's happened is that lots of students have gone home, and everyone has said, 'Well, that's fine.' There's much more uncertainty about mode, going into the next academic years. And, you know, if it's the case that lots of universities are saying, 'We've successfully made the transition to online', we probably ought to be in a position where we are saying to those students, through national funding policies, 'Well, you know, we'll support you by still giving you full amounts of entitlement to student funding.' And that's not necessarily—that's not being aligned in quite the same way, at least not yet. 

That leads me straight—you've answered pretty much, Jim, my next question, which was Welsh Government has written to this committee, they've said they've got no intention of changing the policy whereby students who live at home receive less maintenance funding than if they were resident away from home. I think, Jim, you've made it pretty clear you don't think that's workable in the current circumstances, so I'm just wondering if anybody else wanted to comment on that. You know, is it workable considering the uncertainty about face-to-face teaching and accommodation decisions?

It's perhaps a little bit unhelpful of the Government to entirely rule anything out at this stage, especially for students who are facing financial difficulties. I'll just repeat what I said about the hardship fund—I think that's probably right now the best way to get cash into students' pockets, especially those facing immediate financial distress. If this proposal is to go ahead, it would obviously put more cash in the pockets of Welsh domiciled students, and it might encourage Welsh domiciled students to stay in Wales, which is, after all, what we want to do.

I think it's clearly inequitable, and given the way that things are developing, it makes very little sense. I'd also just like to echo Jim's point on universal credit that he made earlier—I think that's a really, really important point to make, particularly in areas of Wales that are dependent on tourism and seasonal work, and those are the sectors that have been really hit in the last few months.

Can I just very briefly add—I'm serious about that Ceredigion point, right: the county council is proud that it was able to avoid a significant infection rate, but partly because it was able to work with the university and just remove students from the town? Now, if we have a set of policies going into September that very, very deliberately insist on the vast majority of students piling in, pouring into towns and cities, and then living together, and then either expecting them not to mix, or then being surprised when they do mix—that might not be wise from a public health point of view, and it might not be wise from an educational point of view. So, part of it, I think, is causing decision makers in Government that are thinking about both health and education to talk to each other and co-ordinate around what the best set of policies are from an integrated perspective in relation to mental health, public heath, the progress of the pandemic and educational quality and experience and outcomes.

Okay, thank you. We have, I'm afraid, been beaten by the clock, so we may well drop you a line with our last couple of questions, if that's okay. But thank you so much for attending. It was a really useful session and has given us a lot to think about as a committee, so thank you very much for your time. We'll send you a transcript to check for accuracy following the meeting, as usual. Diolch yn fawr.

9. Papurau i’w Nodi
9. Papers to Note

Item 9, then, is papers to note. Paper to note 1 is a letter from the Deputy Minister for Health and Social Services—response to the committee's letter of 12 May asking for further information on the impact of COVID on children and young people. Paper to note 2 is a letter from me to the Minister for Education regarding an update on additional learning needs reform. And paper to note 3 is additional information from the All Wales Heads of Children's Services, following our meeting with them on 18 May. Can I ask if Members are happy to note those, please? Thank you.

17:10
10. Cynnig o dan Reol Sefydlog 17.42(ix) i Benderfynu Gwahardd y Cyhoedd o Weddill y Cyfarfod
10. Motion under Standing Order 17.42(ix) to Resolve to Exclude the Public for the Remainder of the Meeting

Cynnig:

bod y pwyllgor yn penderfynu gwahardd y cyhoedd o weddill y cyfarfod yn unol â Rheol Sefydlog 17.42(ix).

Motion:

that the committee resolves to exclude the public from the remainder of the meeting in accordance with Standing Order 17.42(ix).

Cynigiwyd y cynnig.

Motion moved.

Item 10, then: can I propose, in accordance with Standing Order 17.42, that the committee resolves to meet in private for the remainder of the meeting. Are Members content? Thank you. We will now, then, proceed in private. 

Derbyniwyd y cynnig.

Daeth rhan gyhoeddus y cyfarfod i ben am 17:10.

Motion agreed.

The public part of the meeting ended at 17:10.

Dysgu am Senedd Cymru