The Department for Education (DfE) has today (13 April) confirmed that the full return of all university students to campus and in-person teaching will happen “no earlier than 17 May”.
The timing aligns with Step 3 of the government’s roadmap out of Covid-19 restrictions on social contact and indoor mixing and is dependent on a review of the latest data and the impact of Step 2 on the four key tests.
The higher education had hoped for a full return to campus on 12 April, and there has been widespread criticism about the government’s lack of communication with the sector over its plans for students.
Universities UK (UUK), which represents 14o universities in England, called on the government to “urgently explain how it reached this decision”. The organisation estimates that a half of students – approximately 1 million learners – do not have access to in-person teaching.
The government also announced that new home testing kits would be provided to students throughout the summer term to increase testing uptake and help limit virus transmission
In addition, all returning students and staff are being encouraged to take three supervised tests (three to five days apart) at an asymptomatic testing site on campus, where available.
All tests will be free, and 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.
The universities minister Michelle Donelan announced the government will make an additional £15 million available for student hardship funds this academic year. The government invested £70m over the course of the last financial year in student hardship, although budgets that year were £16m lower than the previous year.
Studies and surveys suggest that many students are residing in their term-time addresses. A survey by the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) suggests two-thirds of students (66%) are residing in their usual term-time accommodation, compared to 34% who are not.
Statistics from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), covering England from 19 February to 1 March, suggest that 85% of students lived in the same address as they did at the start of the Autumn 2020 term.
Enquiries by student housing charity Unipol found that around 60% of private Purpose Built Student Accommodation (PBSA) and approximately 70% of houses in multiple occupation (HMOs) are occupied at present.
Donelan said universities could grant some allowances to students that had returned for mental health or wellbeing reasons.
“Our advice remains that some students, such as those with inadequate study space and/or mental health and wellbeing issues, may need to return to their term-time address despite their teaching still being online,” the minister 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.”
Ministers now need to be honest with staff and students and confirm most courses will stay online until September, which is what UCU has been calling for
– Jo Grady, UCU
Mixed reaction from the sector
UUK said the announcement was “hugely disappointing”. Prof Julia Buckingham, president of the organisation, said many students would be denied in-person teaching and support “at a crucial time in the academic year”.
She said students were “desperate to return”, adding that government itself noted the importance of in-person education to “mental health and wellbeing”.
“Universities have proven […] safety measures put in place,” Prof Buckingham continued. “With schools, colleges and many businesses open, we now need the government to urgently explain how it reached this decision so that universities can communicate with their students and continue preparing to maximise opportunities for in-person activities from 17 May.”
The NUS said the government had “started to fill the information vacuum of its own making”, though it described the delay “galling”.
Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, NUS vice-president (higher education) said: “While incredibly late in the day today’s announcement will at least allow students to make necessary arrangements to access their learning and accommodation.
“However, after almost a year’s worth of disruption, there is still much to be done to ensure students receive adequate support to succeed in the time that is left of this academic year.”
Gyebi-Ababio said the union was concerned many students are struggling with their mental health, financial difficulties or lost learning. She called on ministers to work with the HE sector to stop “predatory practices of landlords and accommodation providers [and] provide some urgently needed relief for students”. She welcomed the additional £15 million for student hardship, but called for the reintroduction of non-repayable maintenance grants for the most in need.
University and College Union (UCU) general secretary Jo Grady said the 17 May was too early – and likely unachievable.
“Ministers now need to be honest with staff and students and confirm most courses will stay online until September, which is what UCU has been calling for. Restarting in-person activities in mid-May makes absolutely no sense, as many students’ exams will already have finished,” she said.