England: in-person teaching can resume on all courses from 17 May

Prime minister’s announcement comes as most universities move into examinations period

May 10, 2021
Cambridge UK, England ,24-11-2020, Painted footprints on asphalt outside University covid test station. The University offers swab tests to College and University staff and students displaying symptoms
Source: iStock

All remaining students at English universities will be able to return to in-person teaching from 17 May, Boris Johnson has confirmed.

The prime minister said on 10 May that the resumption of face-to-face tuition was part of the third stage of the government’s easing of coronavirus restrictions due to take place the following week.

In reality, most universities will have very little undergraduate teaching scheduled for the remainder of the academic year, with the summer examinations period getting under way.

But vice-chancellors have said that institutions were planning activities and extended opening of facilities, which will still benefit students.

Universities UK had previously complained that it was “illogical” that higher education was left out of the second round of lockdown easing on 12 April, which allowed shops, gyms and tourist attractions to reopen. Currently, only students on practical and priority courses are receiving in-person tuition.

Sector sources suggested that Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, blocked plans to allow a full resumption of face-to-face teaching for fear that it could lead to a small spike in cases that would jeopardise the reopening of indoor hospitality, also scheduled for 17 May.

The Department for Education said that students would be urged to take a lateral flow test for coronavirus “at least one day before they travel back to their term-time accommodation”. Upon arrival, “all students and staff will be encouraged to take three supervised lateral flow device tests three to four days apart at an on-campus asymptomatic-testing site, and will be expected to be tested two times a week throughout the rest of the summer term”.

However, Office for National Statistics surveys indicate that more than four out of five students at English universities are living at their term-time addresses, and barely one in three are living with their parents.

Greg Walker, chief executive of the MillionPlus group of modern universities, said that students would “welcome” a return to in-person teaching.

“The enormous efforts made by universities to ensure their campuses are Covid-secure has been instrumental in ensuring that this can happen with appropriate assurance in the remaining weeks of term. This is a remarkable effort from all those concerned,” Dr Walker said.

However, the University and College Union said it would have been better to wait until September, when more staff and students would be vaccinated against Covid-19.

“The decision to return to in-person teaching on university campuses when classes for the vast majority of students have already finished is a distraction, placing more workload onto burnt-out staff,” said general secretary Jo Grady.

“The point of universities is learning and research, not jumping through ridiculous hoops. This looks like a stupid end to a stupid year beset by government mismanagement.”

Coinciding with the prime minister’s statement, the DfE said that it was publishing a new graduate employment and skills guide to help university leavers consider what their next steps should be in the midst of a global pandemic.

chris.havergal@timeshighereducation.com

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