Students on practical and practise-based courses that require access to specialist equipment or facilities may return to universities in England from 8 March 2021, prime minister Boris Johnson has said.
Students on medicine and allied healthcare courses have already returned to higher education learning environments in many cases.
Students on all other courses should continue to learn online, the government has said. It will review this rule after the Easter holidays.
This review will depend on the rates of infection and hospitalisation and the pace of vaccinations. Students and providers will receive a week’s notice ahead of any further return, the Department for Education confirmed.
Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will set out their own approaches shortly.
While today’s news is positive for some students, it will be disappointing for others that had hoped the government would have allowed them to return. University staff will continue working hard to keep all students motivated, supported, and progressing towards their qualifications
– Julia Buckingham, Universities UK
Universities minister Michelle Donelan said: “We must take steps to help mitigate and reduce transmission around the country, which is why we are implementing a staggered return to in-person teaching. Students on practical and creative courses, who need to access specialist facilities and equipment, should go back from the 8 March, and we will review options for the timing of the return of all remaining students by the end of the Easter holidays, taking into account the latest set of data. We are clear that the quality and quantity of tuition for these students should not drop.”
Prof Julia Buckingham, president of Universities UK, said it would come as “a long-awaited boost” to students who use laboratories, studios, workshops and performance spaces. She said member institutions had created “Covid-secure campuses” for their return, including serial asymptomatic testing and social distancing.
“While today’s news is positive for some students, it will be disappointing for others that had hoped the government would have allowed them to return. University staff will continue working hard to keep all students motivated, supported, and progressing towards their qualifications. There will also need to be a further focus on supporting students’ mental health and wellbeing in the weeks ahead,” Prof Buckingham added.
MillionPlus chief executive Dr Greg Walker said member institutions had invested “millions of pounds in their teaching spaces and online capabilities” to offer students high-quality learning whether online or in-person.
UCU general secretary Jo Grady accused the prime minister of “pushing ahead with an irresponsible reopening of schools, colleges and universities”. She warned the return of students in March risked “more Covid outbreaks”. Universities should teach online until the end of the academic year and agree on health and safety plans with union representatives that “take account of increased transmission rates of new variants, ventilation, PPE and… vulnerable employees”.
Dr Grady threatened universities with strike ballots if they failed to do so.
The union said lateral flow tests were “completely unsuitable” for use on campuses, because “they are unreliable and incorrect negative results may give people a false sense of security”.
This story is being updated