COVID-19: Impact on the UK Education sector
Education has been particularly badly affected by worldwide COVID-19 restrictions, with 184 country-wide school closures, leaving 1.53 billion out of school, and impacting 87.6% of the world’s total enrolled learners1.
The move to online learning
One of the biggest changes for the sector was the move to remote learning. As well as the working from home guidance first issued by the government in March 2020, all students were told they would have to learn remotely and no longer attend school/university in person. Not only was this a challenge for the students, but teachers and university professors also had to adapt to an entirely new way of working. Students at both schools and university were unable to build and develop the personal relationships they would have otherwise had with their teachers and fellow students if they were in the classroom. As a result, 74% of University students have said that COVID-19 has had a negative impact on them2.
The financial impact on the Education Sector
The pandemic has had an enormous financial impact on the sector, notwithstanding extra support received from the government. There is an argument that the financial support received was too little, too late.
In April 2020, in the height of the first lock down, Universities UK sent a paper to the government setting out the financial risks faced by the higher education sector and asking for a £2 billion package of support3. In May 2020, the government announced a package of measures intended to protect universities and students, which included initiatives such as temporary student numbers controls - however it did not directly include provision for any additional funding. This was undoubtedly a shock to universities and education providers. The government did, however, bring forward the availability of £100 million of funding for research activities and £2.6 billion of tuition fee payments. In June 2020 the government then announced a further support package for university research. This included £280 million in additional funding for publicly supported projects, with a mixture of grants and loans to cover lost income from the lack of international students.
College students were unable to take their A Level exams in 2020 due to the lack of learning they had received that year. As a result of this, they were issued with their predicted grades, which were very likely higher than those that a lot of students would have obtained if they had sat exams in the normal way. There was, therefore, an increased demand for universities to take on students for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects such as medicine and nursing, which was difficult to accommodate. The government did provide some extra funding to universities to cover the additional teaching costs to help alleviate this issue.
Much of the focus of the financial impact of the pandemic on University and private education finances has been concerned with the loss of international students, as they traditionally provide a significant income due to the higher tuition fees they pay. Several courses, particularly master’s degrees, rely on overseas students to make them viable. Due to the decrease in the number of international students during the pandemic, a lot of master’s degrees were cancelled, resulting in a loss of income for education providers and also a loss of opportunities for people wishing to advance their learning and education.
Independent education providers that do not attract public funding were faced with the challenge of keeping their staff paid, whilst also taking into account the altered financial situations of their learners. In order to dissuade parents from removing their children from their institutes, some fee-paying schools responded by offering forms of financial support such as discounts.
The early stages of the pandemic were clearly difficult and challenging for the sector, the government, for business and for the public. The reality is that the majority of the education sector suffered financially as a result of COVID-19, and globally over a billion students lost out on vital face to face learning for several months. This will have ramifications on our society and economy for years to come.
What might the Inquiry look at in relation to the Education Sector?
The Inquiry published draft Terms of Reference in March 2022, which included a commitment to examine the consequences of “restrictions on attendance at places of education”4.
Thereafter followed a period of public consultation. During the consultation, the Inquiry received an “overwhelming weight of opinion” that the draft Terms should be amended “to allow expressly for a wider consideration of the impact on children and young people”5.
As a result, the Inquiry Chair, Baroness Heather Hallett, has now recommended to the Government that the Terms of Reference be expanded to specifically include:
- “The impact [of the pandemic] on children and young people, including health, wellbeing and social care;
- Education and early years provision; and
- Antenatal and postnatal care”
The Inquiry is awaiting government approval of the proposed amendments to the draft Terms of Reference.
We can be confident that the Inquiry will look at how the outbreak of Covid-19 has affected all aspects of the education sector including primary schools, secondary schools, colleges, universities and private education providers. It will scrutinise how the Department for Education has managed the situation over the past two years.
It will undoubtedly examine both short term impacts, such as the effects of school closures and exam cancellations, as well as longer term financial implications.
Why might the sector positively want to participate?
The Inquiry has been set up to “examine, consider and report on preparations and the response to the pandemic in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland”. It’s easy to think it will simply be a post-mortem, and there’s a temptation in some sectors to conclude that the world should just move on.
However, there are lessons to be learned, and those lessons are likely to shape the response not just to any further pandemic but also to all manner of other civil emergencies. It is vital that the Inquiry hears a full account of the impact of all areas of the government’s response, including the provision of education and the support that was provided to young people and children, teachers and the wider school, college and university workforce. The more participants from the education sector there are, the more wide ranging and compelling the evidence that the Inquiry will be able to hear and consider and use to shape its recommendations for the future.
What support is there for the Education sector to participate?
Section 40 of the Inquiries Act 2005 states that funding for legal representation can be incorporated with the Inquiry budget. Rule 21 of the Inquires Rules 2006 provides the Inquiry Chairman with guidance as to when funding might be given. They must take into account (a) the financial resources of the applicant and (b) whether making an award is in the public interest.
Unfortunately, we think it is unlikely that many corporate participants will benefit from public funding for representation at the inquiry. And if public funding is awarded, it is likely that a large number of participants would be required to share legal representation, with limits on the level of input the legal representatives would be able to provide.
Self-financing representation for an inquiry can be costly (although, we would argue, worthwhile to protect the future interests of the sector). One potential solution is to join up with another business other organisations in the educational sector with the same or similar interests. This could be a private agreement or through a trade body.
We advise participants to which this might apply to consider putting together their own groups and to instruct legal representatives at an early stage. If our experienced Inquires team can help you, please contact us. We will be providing further sector specific insights into the Covid Inquiry over the coming months.
1 Education: From disruption to recovery (unesco.org)
2 Life in a Pandemic - Student Minds
3 uuk_achieving-stability-higher-education-april-2020.pdf (universitiesuk.ac.uk)
4 UK COVID-19 Inquiry: draft terms of reference - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)
5 FINAL Consultation Summary Report (covid19.public-inquiry.uk)
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