Gavin Williamson plans phased return to English universities in March

Education secretary targets 8 March but vice-chancellors warn Covid will keep most students away

Gavin Williamson is drawing up plans for students to make a phased return to universities in England from 8 March, although vice-chancellors warned that many were unlikely to be back on campus before summer.

The education secretary is expected to announce on 22 February that final-year students in practical subjects will be able to return to face-to-face teaching, with students taking other subjects to follow soon afterwards. But unions said as much tuition as possible should remain online for the rest of the academic year to put the safety of staff and students first.

It comes amid fierce debate over the timetable for lifting the national lockdown, and as universities and the government fear the financial fallout of extended closures while students continue to pay tuition fees and rent.

Schools across England are also expected to reopen from 8 March. But with infection rates still high and the UK reproduction number, or R value, down slightly to 0.7-1, compared with 0.7-1.1 last week, no dates have been given for socialising to be permitted or shops, pubs and restaurants to open.

While the new higher education timetable was welcomed by senior leaders, they also fear that the education secretary’s waning influence with Downing Street means the Department for Education’s plan may be ignored in favour of other concerns.


Ministers want to avoid a repeat of the scenes last autumn when thousands of students travelled to university only to be forced to isolate within their campus accommodation as Covid outbreaks swept through halls of residence.

Michelle Donelan, the universities minister, said universities would follow the same roadmap as schools for reopening, with the government looking at data up to 15 February and planning to announce on 22 February that both schools and universities in England will reopen in some form.

Donelan told the Tab that the government “will be looking at data including death rates, the virus rate, the vaccination programme and the pressure on the NHS. Then the decision will be announced on 22 February. From the 8 March, more students will be able to go back, should that be what we decide, and that does include higher education students.”

Priority is expected to be given to final-year students on undergraduate courses or taught postgraduate degrees in practical subjects including performing arts and lab-based science courses. But many students may struggle to be allowed back before the Easter holidays at the end of March, when teaching in effect ends for many courses before exams.

With most exams being delivered remotely, that means many of England’s 1.3 million undergraduates will not have any reason to return in person.

Currently only students taking laboratory-based courses such as medical and veterinary science, and courses deemed to be important such as nursing, teaching and social work, are able to be on campus to receive face-to-face tuition.

Some institutions, such as the London School of Economics, have already said students will be taught remotely for the rest of the academic year, but Donelan said the government “will be giving them the option to alter those plans”.

For universities that have given rent refunds or rebates to students with rooms in their halls of residence which they have been unable to use, the lost income will run into millions of pounds for each institution, increasing the financial pressure they have been under since the pandemic began.

The government has given no direct financial aid to universities or students in England, other than hardship funds. In contrast, Northern Ireland this week announced £500 “disruption” grants to all of the region’s 40,000 UK and EU students, as well as hardship funding and other support, in a package worth nearly £40m.

Jo Grady, the general secretary of the University and College Union, said: “The priority right now must be to keep as much teaching as possible online for the rest of the academic year, and putting staff and student safety first.

“Instead, ministers and universities seem intent on reopening campuses due to financial pressures. We need to learn the lessons of last term and prevent further outbreaks.”

The government in Scotland appears to be following a similar timetable to that proposed in England, with an announcement later this month in preparation for a return for some students in early March.

Prof Peter Mathieson, the vice-chancellor of the University of Edinburgh, said: “We have indicated to undergraduate students that we don’t think there will be any substantial face-to-face teaching for the rest of this semester, which means until Easter. We still hope it will be possible for postgraduate students. Sadly undergraduate students are not going to get a lot of face-to-face teaching in this academic year.”

In defiance of the government’s orders to stay at home, several universities report that students are “returning to campus in droves”, even without the prospect of face-to-face teaching or the use of university facilities.

One university is said to have about 70% of its usual student numbers on or around campus, in part due to high numbers of students on exempt courses such as nursing. Most others estimate that 30% to 40% of students are back, and some have more than half.

Mathieson said his university was keen to follow the regulations but he was aware some students had returned even though they had been advised not to. “Some students have voted with their feet, it’s been reported by just about all the universities I’ve heard from, Russell Group and elsewhere. It’s interesting, it reflects the fact students start to identify university as their new home,” he said.

Universities UK, which represents vice-chancellors at mainstream institutions, said: “Universities are continuing to work with government on plans for the return of more students as soon as the public health situation allows. Once we know more about when and how restrictions are being lifted for the higher education sector, universities will be able to communicate directly with their students.”


Richard Adams and Rachel Hall

The GuardianTramp

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