We spoke with Welsh Education Minister Kirsty Williams: Here’s what we know

‘Young people have had a particularly challenging time’

The Cardiff Tab recently spoke with Welsh Education Minister, Kirsty Williams. We discussed university students and how the pandemic has affected us and our studies. Many students have had great concerns about their studies, their mental health, and the lack of support we have had from our universities over the last year.

Due to the pandemic, our courses have shifted online, with some blended-learning. Campuses have been closed or we simply haven’t been able to access them. From staying at home, to completing online examinations, university students have had it hard, but many fail to see any support

University students have overall felt forgotten, especially amidst the ongoing discussions and support for GCSE and A-Level students. Speaking with the minister, we asked if the government would be giving any additional support to university students:

“First of all, you’re absolutely right, the impact on everybody has been huge. I do feel that in particular, young people have had a particularly challenging time, both students in schools, and colleges, and our universities.

She is aware that people feel like more attention is brought to students doing GCSE’s and A-Levels, but she states that this is due to the fact these are qualifications that “we regulate, and obviously university students are studying at autonomous bodies who are responsible for the rewarding of their degrees.”

Legally, she stresses, it’s a very different set up, therefore the government do not have the ability “nor would the university want us” to interfere in the assessment and rewarding status that they have.

In terms of supporting university students, she states that the Welsh Government will be investing additional money which will be passed onto universities to help with increased access to student hardship funds, for students who find themselves in difficult financial situations, improvements and additional support for mental health, both from the university itself, “and for the first time, funding student unions, so student unions can develop peer-to-peer support programmes in terms of mental health.”

She states that “we will continue to review with our funding council and universities, what more assistance we can give.”

Graduates, and final year students again have suffered considerably, around now many of these would apply for trainee or graduate schemes, however the job market is now a very uncertain place. Manu students are wondering if the government have considered any additional support regarding this?

“These are becoming incredibly uncertain times to be coming to the end of your formal studies,” she stressed that there are a number of things the government are doing, like last summer where they promoted the opportunity of master programmes.

They are also working with the Minister of Economy to support the economy in general, but also looking at specific programmes supporting the placement of graduates. “I understand that it is a difficult time, and clearly, the faster we can get hold of the pandemic, that we can vaccinate people, and life can return to a more normal,” then that provides an opportunity for the economy to provide those opportunities.

An increasingly serious issue has been the mental health crisis, there is no doubt that students and young people have suffered greatly with their mental health during this pandemic. But what does the government propose to do about this?

As a government, they expect that universities are putting in place fair and proportionate alternatives to how they are teaching students. So, rather than just providing for mental health support, “which we are doing, and will keep under review if we need to do more,” are “considering things that are a source of stress for students in the first place.”

She stresses that there is a need for a two-point approach, where support is given to those who need it, and to find the root causes of the “worries people understandably have at this time.”

Petitions have been created by students asking for tuition fees to be reduced or rebated, as many feel the quality of teaching has not been worth their tuition, nor has the access to campus, and the lack of resources available to us. Is the government considering these at all? 

“When it comes to tuition”, she states that people do stress that “this is not what I thought university was going to be like.” Though she states that, the blended and online learning is being maintained, and they aim to return with as much face-to-face teaching as they can. “From a wellbeing point of view, if universities can see their students for a short amount of time, it’s a way of checking in with people and seeing if they are okay.”

“It certainly isn’t education on the cheap, universities are taking on additional staff, they’re investing on making sure their campuses are secure as possible so some of that face-to-face can continue.”

At this stage, they are not considering a fee rebate, “but clearly, quality has to be maintained,” and they would advise any students who feels like the quality they are being offered isn’t good enough that they should “bring that to the attention of their course tutor.”

For those students who cannot come back to campus at all, she stresses they should discuss that with their university who she’s sure “would want to be as helpful as possible”, “we are in unprecedented times, and universities understand the pressures young people are under.”

Student nurses and healthcare students have worked incredibly hard on the frontline alongside working towards their degrees. Will the government be issuing any kinds of thanks?

“My own niece is a student nurse, and I know what an amazing contribution people are making.” She stresses how hard these students have worked, and that their efforts are deeply appreciated. “The students who are truly at the frontline of this nation’s ongoing battle with the coronavirus, their courage and their personal commitment, is all inspiring.”

She can’t say thank you enough.

Next, we asked if the government is looking into any additional support or financial support to students who haven’t, and won’t, return to their university accommodation: 

“Last year, universities in Wales provided partial, or total refunds for accommodation costs on university accommodation that students were able to take advantage of.” She stated that this was very welcomed, and is aware that a couple universities for this term are also offering a discount.

“Students are obeying the rules, and they’re not returning to campus because they are playing their part in trying to manage the pandemic.”

Finally, we asked about a consideration for tuition fees, where many petitions have circulated recently of students urging for a fee rebate or reduction: 


She knows that universities are committed to working with their students to understand what is best for their current circumstances. Any student who cannot return to their university, whether they are concerned about their own health and wellbeing, or have other responsibilities that would disrupt their study, should discuss that with their university, whom she is sure: “would want to be as helpful as possible.”

“We are in unprecedented times, and universities understand some of the pressures university students are under.”

“At this stage, we are certainly not considering a fee rebate, but clearly quality has to be maintained.” She advises that any student who feels like their quality of teaching isn’t reaching great standards should bring that to the attention of their course leader.

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