University students who have not yet returned to campus for in-person teaching will not be allowed back until May 17 at the earliest, in a devastating blow for hundreds of thousands of young people in England.
Under proposals unveiled by the Government in the Commons today, students will be offered three Covid-19 tests when they return for face-to-face classes on campuses across the country ‘no earlier than’ mid-May.
Students had originally been expected to go back on March 8 and the delay now confirmed by officials is a blow to university chiefs who have pressed for a rapid resumption of normal study and social life.
Ministers are thought to have been persuaded to delay back the return because of the experience last autumn when the arrival of students at universities coincided with a rapid rise in coronavirus cases.
The decision not to lift restrictions on universities until May 17 means that students who have been denied a year of full university life – many of whom have paid £9,250 in tuition fees – will receive fewer than four weeks of campus learning before universities close for the summer in June.
In a written ministerial statement, universities minister Michelle Donelan said that all remaining students in England will be advised not to return to face-to-face lessons on campus until at least mid-May as lockdown is lifted.
However, sector leaders calling on the Government to explain how it reached its decision have described the move as ‘nonsensical’ and ‘unfathomable’, as seminars and lectures will be largely coming to an end by mid-May.
Last week Professor Julia Buckingham, of the umbrella group Universities UK, wrote to Boris Johnson calling it ‘illogical’ to keep students away when shops, hairdressers, gyms, theme parks and libraries will be open.
Most students in England – apart from those on critical courses – were told not to return to campus as part of the lockdown announced in January. It is estimated that around half are currently not eligible to return to in-person teaching.
Ministers are thought to have been persuaded to delay back the return because of the experience last autumn when the arrival of students coincided with a rapid rise in cases
Universities Minister Michelle Donelan announced the policy in the Commons
Covid cases and deaths in the UK rose slightly on Tuesday, with another 2,472 infections and 23 deaths confirmed by Department of Health officials
Ms Donelan said: ‘The movement of students across the country poses a risk for the transmission of the virus – particularly because of the higher prevalence and rates of transmission of new variants.
‘Students who have returned to higher education settings should not move back and forward between their permanent home and student home during term time unless they meet one of the exemptions.’
On returning, all students and staff are encouraged to take three supervised tests – three to five days apart – at an asymptomatic testing site on campus.
After this, students will also have access to home testing kits throughout the summer term, the Department for Education said.
Ms Donelan added: ‘The Government and I recognise just how difficult and disruptive the last year has been for students.
‘However, the road map is designed to maintain a cautious approach to the easing of restrictions, to ensure that we can maintain progress towards full reopening. By step three, more of the population will be vaccinated, and there is also more time to increase testing to reduce risk further.’
Creative and practical students started returning from March 8, with around half of students already eligible to return to in-person teaching.
Upon return, all students and staff are encouraged to take free three supervised tests three to five days apart at an asymptomatic testing site on campus.
After this, students will also have access to free home testing kits throughout the summer term through both the Government’s offer of free rapid LFD tests twice weekly to everyone in England, and ‘University Collect’ services.
All students and staff who test positive from an LFD test will need to self-isolate for 10 days unless they receive a negative PCR test within two days.
In a recent letter to Boris Johnson, Professor Buckingham, president of Universities UK (UUK), which represents vice-chancellors, said it was ‘illogical’ to open shops, gyms, spas, zoos, theme parks, libraries and community centres on April 12 but not allow students to return to campus.
She wrote: ‘This is another blow for those students who have been studying online since early December, and you will be aware of many studies highlighting the impact on students’ mental health, wellbeing and development.’
Vanessa Wilson, chief executive of University Alliance, said: ‘They have traded the health and wellbeing of higher education students in favour of other parts of the economy in a move that is both nonsensical and deeply disingenuous to the nation’s future workforce, upon whom we will all rely to power the UK’s future.’
A parliamentary petition calling for students to be allowed to return to university at the start of the summer term has more than 6,000 signatures.
In a statement issued on Monday, Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, vice president for higher education at the National Union of Students (NUS), said uncertainty about reopening campuses had caused ‘distress’ among students who she said had been ‘consistently treated as low priority’.
The delay is a blow to university chiefs who have pressed for a rapid resumption of normal study and social life. Pictured: A third year student at the University of Bolton
ONS figures showed 400 deaths were linked to Covid in the week to April 2, the most recent. For comparison, this is the lowest level of Covid deaths since October 2
She said: ‘Students have missed out not just on huge swathes of education and hands-on experience this year, but on huge parts of campus life, on top of now learning from cramped homes and bedrooms.’
But the University and College Union (UCU) has called for university courses to stay online until September.
Ahead of the announcement, UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: ‘After a year of dithering and delay from ministers, it now looks like they have belatedly listened to our demands and will keep learning online until at least May 17.
‘But restarting in-person activities in mid-May, with only weeks of the academic year left, makes absolutely no sense as most lectures and seminars will already have finished.’
Recent data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) suggests that around three-quarters of students (76 per cent) are living at the same address as they were at the start of the autumn term.
The stay-at-home order to a million students has led to a huge fall in the morale and mental health of young people who had hoped to be living at universities.
Surveys carried out by the ONS have found plummeting levels of well-being among students and levels of loneliness more than four times higher than among the population as a whole.
Students who need additional mental health support, or who do not have access to appropriate study spaces in their vacation accommodation, are allowed to return to term-time accommodation.
Ms Donelan said: ‘We have asked providers to consider opening facilities to support those who have returned to their term-time accommodation alongside those who have resumed in-person teaching and learning; this is to safeguard students’ wellbeing and to prevent isolation and mental ill health.’
The DfE will make an additional £15million of funding available for student hardship this academic year, she added.
The minister said: ‘I realise that a delay to a return to university may cause some students to face additional costs.’
The timing aligns with Step 3 of the roadmap, where curbs on social contact and indoor mixing will be further eased, the Department for Education (DfE) said.
It also aims to limit potential public health risks associated with student populations moving across the country, a statement from the department added.