Olivia Blake, the new Member of Parliament for Sheffield Hallam, has taken up the Students’ Union’s fight for students during the coronavirus crisis.

It comes nearly three weeks after the SU launched a campaign calling for this year’s student debt to be cancelled, as well as increased support for international students and a programme of economic recovery, aimed at improving students’ job prospects.

As well as launching a petition – which nearly 12,000 people have now signed – the Students’ Union Officers have written to a number of local MPs, including Paul Blomfield (Sheffield Central) and Blake, asking for their support in the campaign.

Read more: Sheffield SU launch campaign calling for the cancellation of this year’s student debt

Newly-elected Blake, who held the seat for Labour by 712 votes in December’s General Election, has now written to the Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, endorsing the priorities outlined by the SU Officer Team.

They include cancelling student debt, a financial package to support international students, the reintroduction of maintenance grants in order to help improve access to higher education, and better opportunities for students.

Olivia Blake, former Deputy Leader of Sheffield City Council, was elected as the MP for Sheffield Hallam in December. (Image: David Woolfall)

“The UK HE sector is in crisis, which has been further exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The public health crisis has created huge financial uncertainty for universities across the country, both in preventing them from functioning as normal, but also by creating significant anxieties over future recruitment and the impact this could have on funding levels,” she wrote in the letter.

“The effect of the pandemic on students is additionally an area of concern, particularly regarding student mental health and wellbeing. Students are struggling to pay for privately rented accommodation which they have vacated during the pandemic, accommodation that they may not end up returning to for the remainder of the academic year.

“There is an urgent need for government action to address these crises, provide immediate support to our universities and their students, and ensure the long-term sustainability of the sector.”

Her letter, which was also copied to the SU President, Jake Verity, was shared on the MP’s Facebook page and Twitter.

Sheffield Students’ Union launched this campaign not just because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, which has seen face-to-face teaching at the University suspended since Monday 16 March, as well as Easter break extended to four weeks, but also due to the University and College Union strikes which hit both semesters, meaning up to 22 days of lost teaching for some students in November-December and February-March.

Read more: All face-to-face University of Sheffield teaching suspended due to coronavirus pandemic

Since the SU’s campaign launched, however, some international students had expressed concern that it focussed on cancelling student debt, but many international students don’t pay their fees through loans like many home students, instead paying out of their own pocket for their place at university.

Moves have been made to stress that the SU is considering both home and international students, while the second note in Olivia’s note, calling for additional financial support for international students, should go some way to assuaging these concerns.

Jake Verity, Sheffield SU President, following his election in March 2019. (Image: Rebekah Lowri)

Jake told Forge Press: “We’re really glad to have Olivia Blake’s support on our campaign, having been working closely with her team on this for over a week now.

“We want to push on with these priorities and are looking to try to get more Students’ Unions, and Members of Parliament, from across the country to follow suit.

“As an SU Officer Team, I promised you we will always fight for the things that matter, and defend your interests. This is a huge milestone and a massive step forward for the student movement, but there is a long way to go.”

Image credit: Chelsea Burrell

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