January term: staggered return and mass testing, announces DfE

The Department for Education has set out how higher education providers should manage student returns in January

Universities must stagger the return of students to university after the Christmas break and offer them Covid testing, the Department for Education has announced today.

The government says it will also provide up to £20m to support students in financial hardship

The new guidance sets out how higher education providers should manage student returns in January, and comes the day before students start travelling home for Christmas in the so-called ‘travel window’ between 3 – 9 December.

When will students go back to university?

Students will be asked to stagger their return to universities after Christmas over a five-week period to help protect those around them and reduce transmission of Covid-19. The DfE guidance offers the following schedule:

  • From 4-18 January, medical students, those on placements or practical courses with a need for in-person teaching should return in line with their planned start dates.
  • The remaining courses should be offered online from the beginning of term so students can continue their studies from home. “The Government expects universities to maintain the quality, quantity and accessibility of their tuition,” says the DfE. “The Office for Students will be monitoring universities to ensure this happens.”
  • From 25 January, all other students should start to return gradually over a two-week period
  • By 7 February all students are expected to have returned

However, the DfE also encourages universities to “tailor plans to best suit the needs of their own student population” and says they should prioritise the return of students who need to return to campus as early as possible, such as those “who do not have access to appropriate accommodation or study space.”

Student testing

All universities will be offered testing facilities to give students two lateral flow tests, three days apart, when they return to university after the festive period. This is to help break transmission among students especially when they may be asymptomatic. Results will be turned around within an hour, says the DfE, adding that “students should restrict contact in the three days between their tests and if they receive a positive test they will have to self-isolate in their accommodation”, with universities providing support to ensure they can access food, medical help and, if required, mental health support.

Where available,  urges the DfE, students who have spent the winter break in Tier 3 areas where mass community testing is on offer should take a test before travelling back to university if possible.

Hardship fund

The Government has also announced a one-off fund of up to £20 million to help students most in need of support in these exceptional circumstances.

“The health and wellbeing of students, staff and local communities is always our primary concern and this plan will enable a safer return for all students. But we must do this in a way which minimises the risk of transmission,” said universities minister Michelle Donelan.

“I know students have had to make sacrifices this year and have faced a number of challenges, but this staggered return will help to protect students, staff and communities.

“It is so important students have the support they need to continue their education, which is why we are providing up to £20m funding for those facing hardship in these exceptional times.”

Health secretary Matt Hancock said:

“We must use every tool at our disposal to stop the spread of the virus and help reduce the risks around students travelling back home this Christmas. Using new technology and the additional capacity we have built, we are now able to extend our testing offer to help manage this risk, by identifying those showing no symptoms who can infect people unknowingly and stop them from passing the virus on to others as they move around the country.

“I encourage all students to play their part in bringing this virus under control by getting tested twice, and by following the restrictions in place when travelling to and from university this term.”

Sector responses

In response to the DfE guidance, Universities UK said: “Today’s announcement demonstrates the government’s confidence that universities can safely welcome students back to campuses for blended teaching, learning and support in the new year.

“While January will undoubtedly be challenging for the country, a staggered approach will allow enhanced testing capacity to be maximised so that Covid-safe in-person teaching can begin at the start of term for some students, and shortly after for others. The guidance also recognises the importance of libraries and study spaces being available for those who need them.

“We welcome the government’s commitment to continued asymptomatic testing for university students in the new year, following the successful roll-out of pilots across the country this term. The high demand for tests from students shows they understand the important role testing can play in keeping themselves and their communities safe, as well as supporting students to receive the best possible university experience under the circumstances.

“Universities now need further clarity from the government on how they will be supported to deliver testing in the new year, given the significant resource requirements associated with the pilots so far.”

Dr Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group said: “It’s helpful for universities and students to have clarity on the Government’s plan for managing the return of students in January. Our members will now be working hard to implement it and make students aware.

“Our priority throughout this period continues to be staff and student safety and ensuring students face as little disruption as possible to their ongoing studies and professional qualification requirements.

“Government has rightly said that campus facilities – study spaces, libraries and labs – should remain open for students who don’t have suitable learning spaces at home, and those staying on campuses over the winter break, including international students, even if they are not attending in-person lessons in January. With the help of hardworking staff, universities will do everything they can to ensure the best possible learning experience for all students, be that in-person or online.”

We welcome the financial commitment by the government to help universities support their most disadvantaged and vulnerable students, many of whom have faced greatly exacerbated challenges as a result of the pandemic – Vanessa Wilson, University Alliance

In response to the government announcement, Vanessa Wilson, University Alliance CEO commented:

“We are pleased to see the guidance released today, which offers universities and their staff and students clarity on the plans for the new year, and demonstrates the government’s confidence that universities can safely welcome students back for blended teaching and learning. The guidance rightly states that campus facilities may stay open throughout the Christmas period, and Alliance universities will continue to support those students who remain on campus throughout the break; as they do every year.

“We particularly welcome the guidance’s specific provision for practical courses and scheduled placements to resume in line with their planned start dates. These courses, many of which are delivered at Alliance universities, are vital for ensuring the continued training of many key worker professions.

“Alliance universities have all mobilised exceptionally quickly to set up and deliver asymptomatic  testing for students, and these facilities will continue to be in place and ready to support the safe return of students in January; with the right support from the government.

“We also welcome the financial commitment by the government to help universities support their most disadvantaged and vulnerable students, many of whom have faced greatly exacerbated challenges as a result of the pandemic.”


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