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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 30 September 2020

Agenda: Point of Order, Portfolio Question Time, Supporting Students through the Global Pandemic, Family Care Givers, Agriculture Bill, Social Security (Up-rating of Benefits) Bill, Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Albion Rovers FC (Mark Millar Donation)


Contents


Supporting Students through the Global Pandemic

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Linda Fabiani)

The next item of business is a statement by Richard Lochhead on supporting students through the global pandemic. The minister will take questions at the end of his statement, so there should be no interventions or interruptions.

14:52  

The Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science (Richard Lochhead)

Going to university or college is an exciting time for our young people, with many leaving home for the first time to make lifelong friends, join new clubs and learn new things. However, this year is different and challenging, because we are in the middle of a global pandemic.

I would like to say directly to all students and staff in our colleges, universities and student accommodation: thank you. I thank you for the sacrifices that you have made since the start of the pandemic and for what you are doing to support each other and to help to keep everyone safe.

I know that it is really hard right now; indeed, it is heartbreaking, especially for first years who may already have missed out on once-in-a-lifetime experiences such as final school exams, proms and traditional freshers’ weeks. I know that I speak for the whole Parliament—and, indeed, the country—when I say to students that I am truly sorry that due to the pandemic your introduction to college and university life is not what you, your families or I would have wanted it to be.

It is important that students have the opportunity to continue with their learning. Limiting access to education has a negative impact on their personal development, wellbeing and life chances. Also, our country needs a stream of talented and trained individuals and we need our world-leading colleges and universities, which employ many people and underpin our economy.

That is why we have consistently planned for some face-to-face teaching in colleges and universities as part of a blended return to campus during phase 3 of the Government’s route map. That approach is supported by recent SAGE advice, which highlights that some sectors, such as research and healthcare, require face-to-face teaching. The SAGE report also highlights the impact of remote learning on wider health and wellbeing. It states:

“Changes to the structure of higher education may exacerbate these effects by decreasing the ability of people to make friends, engage in social activities together, gossip and chat, and interact with tutors or mentors, as well as by increasing the difficulty of work and studying.”

I am sure that members will all agree that that is especially important for vulnerable students and for social inclusion, as well as for first years, who have already missed out on so much because of Covid.

Against the backdrop of a global pandemic, there were no easy, risk-free options. A record number of young people worked hard for their entry qualifications and were stuck at home for months, and they then geared up for going off to university or college and the next stage of their lives. Along with stakeholders, we decided that asking all those young people to stay at home and begin their courses online would have inflicted significant harm on them and on the wider further and higher education sectors in Scotland.

The advice also pointed out the risks and likelihood of Covid outbreaks when the new academic year got under way. We were never advised to keep students at home, but we were advised that mitigation factors were vital. We have worked together with colleges, universities, accommodation providers, unions and other key stakeholders throughout the crisis on the safe return of further and higher education.

We issued sectoral guidance that clearly states the rules that we expect to be followed, and we have worked extensively to support the sectors in its implementation. Throughout, we have used the best scientific advice available, including advice from SAGE, in helping us to make decisions on balancing the risks. That is why our guidance emphasises that colleges and universities should use risk and equality assessments to decide what a blended learning model and approach looks like in their institutions. Institutions should be working with their staff and students to discuss any concerns that they have about the use of face-to-face teaching, and they should be enabling more online teaching where that can be done. Our guidance also sets out the infection prevention control measures that we expect institutions and accommodation providers to have in place. Importantly, in the context of the current situation, we expect institutions to help students to comply with the rules and to support them in doing so. They have a clear duty of care to their staff and students.

It is important to emphasise that any new restrictions that we put in place are for the protection of the whole of society. All of us, students included, are being asked to follow the same rules on socialising and self-isolation. Last week, we published additional guidance to inform students who wish to return home of their options and how the new national restrictions apply to student households. It contains advice on returning home for a short visit; returning home while self-isolating; and returning home on a more permanent basis.

Our key message is that students should remain living in their current student households and on campus if they are able to do so. That will ensure that students can maintain social connections, access student services and access face-to-face teaching where appropriate and where it is taking place. Crucially, it will reduce the risk of large-scale virus transmission and help to keep us all safe.

Although we have no evidence to date of transmission in an FE or HE teaching setting, we have outbreaks among our student population, with significant clusters in university student accommodation. Of the approximately 250,000 students who attend our universities every year, around 45,000 of them, give or take, usually stay in student halls, around 43 per cent of whom will be first-year undergraduate students.

From data that we have received from public health today, we are in the unfortunate position of having 759 of those students test positive for Covid and, as we know, many more are self-isolating. We are using testing in line with our published testing strategy to ensure that it will have the greatest impact in reducing the risk of disease transmission, by testing those with symptoms so that those with Covid-19 can be identified and asked to self-isolate and their close contacts can be traced.

Test and protect was ready for the new academic year and is working. Nonetheless, we are always working to improve access to testing for students and the wider communities. Kits have been provided and mobile test units dispatched in Glasgow and Dundee, and there are now walk-through test centres in St Andrews, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Edinburgh. Further centres will open in Stirling and Glasgow in the next week or so, and there are more sites under development.

We remain mindful of clinical advice about the limitations of asymptomatic testing and the need to prioritise our testing capacity, in line with our testing strategy. However, we are exploring the merits of some targeted surveillance testing that is focused on individual institutions to understand the level of asymptomatic cases.

To be clear, due to the incubation period of the virus and the testing that is taking place, we expect to see more positive cases in the coming days. That is why everyone with symptoms should self-isolate, along with their household.

I have heard some really good examples of how institutions are supporting isolating students, for example by providing food and cleaning materials, as well as proactive welfare and mental health support. Like others, however, I have been disappointed to hear from some who have been struggling to access that support or information.

Whether you are a student from Scotland or from elsewhere in the United Kingdom, perhaps away from home for the first time, or one of the tens of thousands of international students who have chosen to study here and are thousands of miles from home, each and every student deserves the utmost support. Anything less is wholly unacceptable.

I want to be clear: universities and student accommodation providers have a duty of care to their students. Right now, that must be their number 1 priority. Universities should be providing a gold-standard stay-at-campus support package for all students who are self-isolating. I note that the 19 higher education institutions have this afternoon published a joint pledge of what they want to deliver for students in Scotland, and I welcome that.

That support should include signposting for the mental health counselling services that are already available, many of which have been funded by the Scottish Government. We are actively considering what further support we can give in that regard.

Universities should look sympathetically at students who have left or want to serve notice on their tenancy and reapply at some future point. These are extraordinary times, and we are asking every institution to be extraordinarily supportive and understanding.

We will provide resources to student associations and to NUS Scotland to help them to engage directly with students, to hear what they have to say and to ensure that students have the latest public health advice and know their rights.

I have asked the national incident management team, which is overseeing the outbreaks on campuses, to reflect on the experience of recent days and to specifically consider what can be done to minimise repeated periods of self-isolation, as well as considering the general issues around isolation for students. We all know—perhaps from our own history of being students—that many of them live in small rooms in halls.

We are six months into the pandemic, and it is far from over. In light of the outbreaks and the cases among students, we must now redouble our efforts to control Covid-19. Importantly, we want students to have the option to return home safely at Christmas, and we are working with the sector on the best approach. That covers public health measures, staggering term end dates and transport considerations. We will work with the UK Government and other Administrations to bring as much consistency across these islands as possible.

I emphasise that students are in no way to blame for the circumstances that they and we find ourselves in. The reports that I am hearing say that the vast majority of students have coped well in the very difficult circumstances in which they find themselves, and that they are complying with the guidance.

It is often said that, until we have a vaccine, we have to learn to live with Covid. However, while we have Covid, we must also allow our citizens to learn, to teach and to educate—to get on with their lives. We must not allow the virus to steal one of the most important years in the lives of our young people.

We must not underestimate how tough it is, but to staff and students I say again: thank you for all that you are doing to keep yourselves and others safe. My message to all our students is: you are Scotland’s future, but we need your help right now. We are all in this together, so let’s keep working together to get through this.

Jamie Greene (West Scotland) (Con)

I thank the minister for his statement, and I thank students and university staff for their efforts.

I agree about the importance of face-to-face teaching, but the current situation is quite bleak for many. The handling of recent events has left thousands of students confused over guidance that was hastily written and then rewritten as the Scottish Government struggled to respond to circumstances that were entirely predictable. Students were told last Friday that they were banned from going to the pub or going out; they were banned from returning to their family homes that weekend; they were ordered to stay in their halls of residence en masse, despite not testing Covid-positive or being tested at all; and many of them were given no physical or mental support.

In his statement, the minister was keen to stress that students are being treated equally to the rest of us in society, but I simply say to him that he should speak to them, as many of them feel as if they are not.

I ask the minister for some clarity. Given the virus’s prevalence on campuses, why has frequent, widespread community testing among students, with the obvious benefits that that would bring, still not been introduced? Does testing capacity prohibit its introduction, or is there some other reason? Why is the Government asking universities simply to be sympathetic to students who have to leave their accommodation, but providing no comfort or certainty to those students that, if they leave, they will receive refunds for accommodation and guarantees that they can return?

Finally, on an important point of process, I have a request for the minister. Such major and important changes to guidance or regulations should be announced to the Parliament in the first instance—not announced hours after we leave the building and changed again before we return to it. That is not good enough for us and it is certainly not good enough for students.

Richard Lochhead

I thank Jamie Greene for his questions. He makes a number of points—some were, of course, wildly inaccurate—and I will address them briefly.

On testing, we follow the test and protect regime and have been advised, in relation to students and the rest of the population, that our focus has to be on the delivery of testing capacity for students with symptoms. We have also been advised that international students who arrive from certain countries have to undertake a two-week quarantine.

We know that a couple of universities in England are involved in a research pilot of random testing—perhaps that is the mass testing to which Jamie Greene referred—and we are paying close attention to it. I have said that, in Scotland, we have asked public health officials to explore whether asymptomatic testing has a role on Scottish campuses as well. We follow a testing regime that is similar to the regime elsewhere in the UK, and I am not sure why Jamie Greene thinks that following advice of public health officials is the wrong thing to do.

We published our guidance for the safe opening of our college and university campuses on 1 September. We worked with stakeholders on the guidance, and it was published in time for the campuses opening.

This past weekend, we issued guidance for students so that they could understand the new restrictions, which had been in place in Scotland for only a few days. The leader of the Tory party in Scotland attacked me for not publishing that guidance several months ago, but the guidance that was put into context for student households had been published only a few days previously.

It was important that students on our campuses understood how the restrictions that came into force only a few days ago applied to their circumstances if they wanted to go home. I said to Jamie Greene yesterday that students and student representatives warmly welcomed the guidance, which gave them the clarity that they needed about what the restrictions meant if they wanted to go home.

Universities Scotland issued advice, which the Scottish Government endorsed, that followed a successful policy at the University of St Andrews, where the student population was asked not to socialise on one particular weekend to help curb the spread of the virus. As a whole, the sector sent the same message to the rest of the student population: it was not a ban, but an ask of the student population. Thankfully, many of Scotland’s students abided by that request and played their role in helping to keep us all safe, and I thank them for it.

Iain Gray (East Lothian) (Lab)

The truth is that the Government failed to properly prepare a plan for the return of students and then, panicking, rewrote and contradicted its own advice every few hours over the weekend, communicating randomly by press release and tweet. Universities were left to police the ever-changing guidance, to provide food and to refund rents.

Now universities are ordered to provide gold-standard support. This is a gold-standard Government fiasco, just like the Scottish Qualifications Authority results shambles, to which many of these young people were also subjected.

Today’s frankly insipid statement will provide little consolation or hope. At least ministers admitted that they got the SQA results wrong. Will the minister admit that he got this wrong and apologise properly to Scotland’s students? Will he publish all the advice that he has said he followed and information about the stakeholder discussions that he has said he has had? Will he promise universities actual financial support now, to allow them to support students and to refund rents?

Richard Lochhead

I will start with Iain Gray’s last point about financial support for the sector. This is a huge challenge for Scotland’s students and universities, and, to an extent, for our colleges. We are having regular conversations with them, and will continue to discuss the financial consequences of coping with the outbreaks and the current situation across Scotland. We are certainly keeping the matter under review.

With regard to our overall approach, I explained that the guidance for the safe reopening of colleges and campuses, which has largely been adhered to—we have no evidence that it is not being adhered to—was published on 1 September, prior to the opening of Scotland’s universities, which open earlier than those in the rest of the UK. A similar approach was taken by the Labour Government in Wales, the Conservative Government down south, and the Northern Irish Administration. Unfortunately, and as I am sure members have seen, because we are in the middle of a global pandemic, there have been outbreaks under all Administrations. We are in a very difficult situation, in which there are no easy options. I am not sure what different approach Iain Gray is suggesting we should have taken. The approach that we took was to let people get on with the next stage of their lives, and we are doing our best to keep them safe.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Both front-bench questions went over time, so I do not think that I will get through all the questions, although I will try, if everyone else tries, too.

Rona Mackay (Strathkelvin and Bearsden) (SNP)

We know that students in Scotland have access to the most generous level of financial support anywhere in the UK. What discussions has the minister had with the Student Awards Agency for Scotland and the Student Loans Company to ensure that applications from students who might need to submit a late application to gain access to financial support will be processed and awarded as quickly as possible?

Richard Lochhead

We have had many conversations with the Student Loans Company and the Student Awards Agency to make sure that we are taking into account the extra challenges that Scotland’s students face at this time, and they have already introduced some flexibility. Given that there are students who are self-isolating or otherwise caught up in the current situation in Scotland, we would expect the Student Loans Company and the Student Awards Agency for Scotland to continue to take that approach. Rona Mackay makes an important point about making sure that students do not experience extra anxieties at this time.

Jamie Halcro Johnston (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

The minister’s statement makes it clear that he had advice highlighting the

“likelihood of Covid outbreaks when the new academic year got under way.”

We know that at least one adviser to the Scottish Government advocated routine testing of students on arrival and again after a short interval. Only now is the Scottish Government exploring the merits of some targeted surveillance testing. On 2 September, I raised with the minister my concern that I did not have confidence in the testing regime that the minister was then relying on.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Could you get to your question?

Jamie Halcro Johnston

Seven hundred and fifty-nine identified cases later, does the minister now accept that his failure to introduce routine testing in halls of residence was a mistake?

Richard Lochhead

We have a test and protect strategy that our public health advisers, the chief medical officer and the advisory groups that give us the scientific advice have agreed with us, and which we are implementing across all parts of Scottish society, including campuses. The strategy is that we should focus on testing students, and any citizens in Scotland, who have symptoms of Covid, ensure that they get their test results and trace their contacts. That is working well and is why we have so many students who are, unfortunately, self-isolating. We have identified those students, so that we can protect them and the rest of society.

Of course, how tests are delivered and the results that they can give are always being developed, so our scientists are taking a close interest in where that work is going. If it offers further opportunities for our testing regime, I am sure that they will be taken on board.

The testing regimes in Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland are similar, because the regime is the best one that is available. That is why we are using it.

Stuart McMillan (Greenock and Inverclyde) (SNP)

As a former international student, I ask what reassurances have been provided to international students, who will be feeling the extra pressure of being in a different country, and potentially under different rules to those in their home country.

Richard Lochhead

I have discussed with our universities and know that they are aware of the importance of supporting international students at this time. That work has been under way for many months, because the global pandemic has been with us for months and months. It is not something that has arisen in the past few weeks.

Stuart McMillan makes an important point. I know that some universities are offering additional support to international students, and I urge them all to do so.

Johann Lamont (Glasgow) (Lab)

The statement seems to be a ministerial catch-up to the rest of the world—and not a terribly convincing one, at that.

Richard Lochhead argues for the benefits of blended learning. Students were told that they were coming back for blended learning, only to discover that their learning is entirely online. Did he agree a definition of blended learning with universities and colleges? If so, when and how was that shared with students?

Richard Lochhead

I refer to my opening remarks on blended learning and how we approached it. I have already explained that to Parliament.

We are working closely with stakeholders—trade unions, student organisations, universities and colleges—and have said that where we are with the pandemic means that although there will be many cases in which students can learn online, there will always be a requirement for some teaching to be face to face. We have said, as I indicated in my opening remarks, that students might be uncomfortable with that because of where we are, with virus case numbers having been increasing in Scotland for some weeks now.

Therefore, lecturers should be sympathetic if students want more online learning and less face-to-face teaching. There are some courses for which face-to-face teaching is essential—practical healthcare, veterinary and medical courses, for example—and they simply cannot take place without it.

Ross Greer (West Scotland) (Green)

I appreciate that some of the issues that I wrote to the minister about have been addressed, but I do not understand the lack of detail or what seems to be a lack of urgency around some of this. Specifically, because students are isolating now, what additional support is the Government considering for self-isolating students? When will a decision be made on that and when will the support be delivered?

Richard Lochhead

It is the duty of the universities, which have a duty of care to their students and staff, to deliver the support that is required. That is why we said that it is absolutely essential that support be delivered as a matter of priority. As I said in my opening remarks, the 19 higher education institutions collectively published a statement pledging to do so. We have told universities that we stand ready to help, if that is required.

I thank Ross Greer for his constructive letter. I hope that he feels that the ideas in his letter have been reflected in today’s statement, because some are being taken forward. We are in a fast-moving evolving situation, and we have to ensure that no student in Scotland is left without what they require to get through it.

Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

Three sets of guidance in four days is not good enough. The minister has been warned about this for months, yet he ignored the warnings. He should have the good grace to apologise to students around the country.

The reasons against asymptomatic testing seem to change constantly; today, it seems to be an issue of capacity. Will the minister clear up exactly why we are not doing routine asymptomatic testing? Principals and student leaders around the country support the idea; he should support it, too.

Richard Lochhead

We take advice from our public health professionals. The testing regime in Scotland is not my decision, as Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science.

The advice at the moment is, and has been up until now, that the focus be on testing anybody in Scotland, including students, who has symptoms. Other forms of testing potentially have a role to play, but with asymptomatic testing, because the virus could be incubating, the test result is only good for that day—the person might have the virus and it would not be picked up by the test. Focusing on the people who have symptoms, tracing the people whom they have come into contact with and asking them to self-isolate is the advice that we have had from the public health professionals in Scotland.

We are keeping that under review. As the higher education minister, I will continue to listen to the advice that we receive for the context of university campuses. As a whole, Scotland is following the best test and protect approach and testing regime that is available to us.

Willie Coffey (Kilmarnock and Irvine Valley) (SNP)

Will the minister provide an update on uptake of the £5 million fund that was provided to universities to tackle digital exclusion and to support students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds with their online studies, particularly during this time?

Richard Lochhead

That money is now available to our universities and other further and higher education institutions to ensure that nobody is left behind, as there is clearly a big emphasis on urging people to study online, where that is appropriate. The funds are to ensure that nobody is left without the equipment to do that. I understand that Scottish universities and colleges have already been using their own funds to ensure that that happens, but the £5 million is there as an insurance policy, and I am sure that it will be required in due course.

Liz Smith (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

Senior figures in the HE sector have said that, last Wednesday, when the Scottish Government indicated that it would issue updated guidance to students, the 19 higher education institutions’ students had precisely four hours to comply with Scottish Government instructions.

Given the confusion that ensued in the following days, does the minister regret both that there was not fuller discussion of what the measures should be, and all the U-turns since then, which have led to so many mixed messages and so much anxiety and concern?

Richard Lochhead

There have been no U-turns on the issue by the Scottish Government. I am not sure to whom Liz Smith is referring.

On the guidance for students who were asked not to socialise last weekend, we endorsed the approach of Universities Scotland, in making that request. However, I accept that the communication was not perfect. Some of the newspaper and other headlines that I saw, which talked about bans, were not helpful. I am not apportioning blame for that; I am just explaining that, clearly, there was a communication issue.

Other guidance for universities and colleges was published on 1 September. Because we are dealing with a situation in which national guidance was brought in, also at short notice, on social gatherings and on not visiting other households indoors, we quickly adapted that guidance for the context of student households, so that students could understand how the national restrictions apply to student households—given, in particular that there were outbreaks on campuses, and that many perhaps wanted to go home, as they were really struggling to cope. We got that guidance out as quickly as we could.

We are living in the middle of a global pandemic. We do not have as much time as we would like and we do not get notice of the rate of the pandemic. We are doing our best to get through the situation, so it would be really helpful if everyone could join together in doing that.

Shona Robison (Dundee City East) (SNP)

I welcome the minister’s statement that a mobile testing unit has been dispatched to Dundee. Will he provide more information on when the unit will be in place and operational, and where it will be located?

In his statement, the minister said that further walk-in test centres are under active development. Will one of them be in Dundee?

Richard Lochhead

I am told that Dundee is under consideration for a city-centre walk-in testing centre, and that conversations about that are going on with NHS Tayside, Abertay University and other stakeholders. I hope that we will be able to update Shona Robison and Parliament on that as soon as possible.

Pauline McNeill (Glasgow) (Lab)

This is one of the poorest sets of decisions that has been made in the crisis, by ministers and universities. They knew, or ought to have known, of the risks to students in communal halls, who have found themselves trapped and sick, only to find that teaching for them is online.

Why, why, why did the minister not insist that students be tested on arrival? Was not it his duty to insist that students—

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Will the member come to a close, please?

Pauline McNeill

Was it not the minister’s duty to insist that students who were coming to communal accommodation should be tested on arrival?

Richard Lochhead

Pauline McNeill has raised the testing regime again.

As I have explained, the advice that we have is that the best testing regime is, because of the issues around asymptomatic testing, to ensure that we test students who have symptoms. I understand that that process is being followed in Wales, where Pauline McNeill’s party is in Government, as well as south of the border and in Northern Ireland. I do not take those decisions. The scientific advice to us from public health professionals is that that is the best testing regime. We have evidence that it is working well on campuses.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I ask that questions and answers be quick.

Maureen Watt (Aberdeen South and North Kincardine) (SNP)

I ask my question following a visit to the Robert Gordon University, in my constituency, to see what measures it is taking.

What steps are being taken to ensure deliveries of foods and other essentials to students who are self-isolating? Can the Scottish Government facilitate a dialogue between universities and supermarkets, in order to prioritise deliveries for those who are self-isolating—not only in halls, but in smaller units of accommodation?

Richard Lochhead

A few days ago, I met the Covid leads for all the universities, who are co-ordinating their strategies at local level, on each campus, to make sure that self-isolating students get the supplies, medicines and foods that they require. I will ensure that they also take forward the suggestion about involving supermarkets.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

That concludes questions on the ministerial statement on supporting students through the global pandemic. I apologise to Neil Findlay for not being able to take his question.

We move to the next item of business. I ask members to take care to maintain social distancing when leaving the chamber.