Universities UK has today urged the government to allow a 12 April return to campus for all students.
Since Boris Johnson’s roadmap for easing lockdown restrictions in England was announced in February, universities have been planning for a final phase of student returns from 12 April, putting in place Covid-safe in-person learning and social activities designed to give students the best possible experience for what remains of the academic year. UUK points out that campus safety records have been exceptional since the staggered returns of some students in January and March.
Other areas of the economy, such as non-essential shops, are set to reopen for business on 12 April.
University students have been extremely tolerant in the face of huge disruption. But the government must not take their resilience for granted – Professor Julia Buckingham, Universities UK
However, the sector has growing concerns that the next stage of student returns will be delayed until 17 May at the earliest.
“University students have been extremely tolerant in the face of huge disruption and a radically different experience this year, and have willingly made sacrifices in the interests of public safety,” said Professor Julia Buckingham, president of Universities UK. “But the government must not take their resilience for granted.
“Universities are fully prepared and looking forward to welcoming students back to Covid-secure environments as soon as possible after Easter, with a variety of enriching activities on offer including in-person teaching, access to study spaces, studios, and sports facilities, alongside additional support and catch-up programmes for those due to graduate this year.
“The government has said that decisions will be based on data, not dates. Universities have proven that the safety measures put in place – including regular asymptomatic testing, additional cleaning, support for self-isolating students and adherence to guidance on ventilation and face coverings – have enabled effective management of the virus on campuses, with minimal infection rates in face-to-face teaching settings and limited onward transmission to local communities.
“When making this decision, we urge the government to take account of the rigorous Covid-safety measures universities have implemented as well as the clear benefits for students of a 12 April return.”
Delaying a return any further also has huge and worrying ramifications for the mental health and wellbeing of our students – Vanessa Wilson, University Alliance
In response to UUK’s statement, a Department for Education spokesperson said: “This has been a difficult time for students, and we are committed to getting all students back into university as soon as the public health situation allows.
“Students on practical and creative courses started returning from the 8th of March, and we will be reviewing options for the timing of the return of all remaining students by the end of the Easter holidays. Decisions will take into account the need to protect progress across the wider roadmap out of the pandemic, including the spread of the virus in communities and pressures on the NHS.”
University groups have backed UUK’s demand, with University Alliance CEO Vanessa Wilson saying that “Delaying any further only serves to undermine the tremendous work and significant investment by universities to ensure their campuses are Covid safe and secure for students and staff alike.
“Delaying a return any further also has huge and worrying ramifications for the mental health and wellbeing of our students who have already experienced significant increases in anxiety and isolation as a result of the absence of in person teaching and interaction with their peers. A return to campus will enable full access to counselling and mental health support services as well as face to face teaching and interaction, which will in of itself combat isolation.
“Universities nationwide, not least those within the University Alliance, are well placed to support a safe return to in person teaching, with extensive asymptomatic testing, increased cleaning, updated guidance on social distancing, ventilation and face coverings in place. The government must urgently take action and allow a 12th April return to campus for all students.”
There are thousands of university students across the country still waiting to find when – or even if – they will be able to return to in-person teaching this year. Many feel they have been forgotten by government – Dr Tim Bradshaw, Russell Group
Commenting on the return of all university students to in-person teaching, Dr Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group, said:
“Education has rightly been a priority for government throughout this pandemic. However, as ministers consider the next steps out of lockdown, there are thousands of university students across the country on courses such as business, maths and languages who are still waiting to find when – or even if – they will be able to return to in-person teaching this year. Many feel they have been forgotten by government and fear they will miss out on opportunities that their universities are currently only allowed offer to students on practice-based courses.
“We are particularly concerned about the impact on student mental health and that some students may not be able to take part in extra activities universities have planned for the rest of the year that would aim to boost employability, consolidate learning and help build networks that could be vital for their future success.
“Our universities have worked hard to make campuses Covid-secure, with twice-weekly testing and very low overall infection rates on campus despite the majority of students now being back in their term time accommodation. Given the lack of evidence that it would represent a risk in terms of an increased spread of Covid, we would urge the government to allow all remaining students to have the opportunity to resume in-person teaching from 12 April.”
However, the University and College Union (UCU) argued that a full 12 April return would risking the safety of staff, students and the wider public.
“This latest call by Universities UK to push students back onto campus from April 12 smacks of self-interest,” said UCU General Secretary Jo Grady. “Universities should not now be asking hundreds of thousands of students to return for in-person teaching after Easter when most courses will only have revision classes and exams left.
“University staff are burnt out from the chaotic and unsustainable demands which the sector has placed on them this year and we will not let universities sacrifice their well-being on the altar of short-term financial incentives. UCU is calling for courses to be taught online until the end of the academic year wherever possible.”
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