The collective voice of higher education in the UK has rebuked the government for not allowing universities to reopen to all students on 12 April and stonewalling its requests for more information.
In a statement this morning, Universities UK (UUK) said the decision to omit universities from the list of sectors permitted to reopen in England under Covid-secure conditions was “illogical”. After weeks of public and private appeals to ministers, the organisation said it has “met with a communications vacuum”.
In a letter to the prime minister, the president of Universities UK Prof Julia Buckingham called on the government “to publish the evidence behind its decision-making”. She said ministers should also “explain what steps they will take to support the mental health and wider prospects of every student still awaiting news on when they will see a return to in-person activities”.
The government has allowed students of key vocational disciplines, like healthcare and teaching, and those on practical or practice-based subjects, like laboratory-based sciences and performing arts, to return to HE campuses.
On announcing the four-stage exit from lockdown on 22 February, Boris Johnson said the latter group of students – those “who would be unable to complete their courses if they did not return to take part in practical teaching, access specialist facilities, or complete assessments” – could return from 8 March. The government said at the time that it would review a return for other students “by the end of the Easter holidays”.
UUK lobbied the government to make 12 April the date in-person teaching could restart for the rest of the student cohort, a half of which it estimates are still studying exclusively online. It hoped the government would announce on Monday – alongside its latest roadmap announcement on easing lockdown restrictions – that universities would join the list of sectors that includes gyms and spas granted permission to extend in-person operations.
Speaking on Thursday 1 April, universities minister Michelle Donelan said the government is yet to decide when universities can restart face-to-face teaching on campus.
UUK recently called on the government to pledge to fund student mental health services, as new data suggests of a growing crisis.
University mental health teams, UUK said, are “plugging the gaps” in NHS services and a “substantive focus” on student mental health must now be a priority for ministers.
The letter from Professor Julia Buckingham, president of Universities UK, to prime minister Boris Johnson in full:
The list of sectors which are allowed to operate in-person activities in England from 12 April is extensive – all shops, personal care businesses, gyms, spas, zoos, theme parks, public libraries and community centres – and restrictions will be lifted enabling people to travel anywhere in England for a self-catering holiday.
It, therefore, seems illogical that students are not allowed to return to their self-catering accommodation and resume their studies in Covid-safe university facilities, particularly at this crucial time of the academic year. 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.”
UUK had previously made an evidence-based case to the government on the benefits of a 12 April return for students’ mental health and wellbeing, as well as the wide-ranging Covid safety measures in place on campuses that have successfully minimised virus transmission this year.
With no announcement forthcoming, UUK is now asking the government to publish the evidence behind its decision-making, and explain what steps they will take to support the mental health and wider prospects of every student still awaiting news on when they will see a return to in-person activities.”