English universities told to move teaching online by 9 December

Government plan allows for six-day ‘travel window’ in run-up to deadline, but union says plan is ‘riddled with holes’

November 11, 2020
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English universities must move all of their teaching online by 9 December so students can return home for Christmas during a six-day “travel window”, the Westminster government has said.

On-campus students are barred from returning home at the moment under the rules of England’s four-week Covid-19 lockdown, but ministers said that they would be able to leave once this ends on 2 December.

Students will be allowed to travel home between 3 and 9 December on staggered departure dates set by their universities, “who will work with other institutions in the region to manage pressure on transport infrastructure”, the government said.

Placing the window at the end of lockdown is a way of “reducing the risk of transmission to family and friends at home”, according to a statement.

“Universities should move learning online by 9 December so students can continue their education while also having the option to return home to study from there,” it added.

The announcement comes a day after Michelle Donelan, the universities minister, wrote to vice-chancellors to say that universities would be provided with free self-administered Covid tests to be used during a week of mass testing from 30 November to 6 December.

Results of the tests would be available within an hour; those who test positive would be required to take another test and if that is also positive, they would have to self-isolate.

The latest government statement said that tests would be offered to “as many students as possible”, with universities in areas of high coronavirus prevalence prioritised.

The Department for Education (DfE) said that this would “provide further reassurance” that students can return home safely, but it does not go as far as saying that students who have not been tested will not be able to return home.

Ms Donelan said that the announcement “[delivers] on our commitment to get students back to their loved ones as safely as possible for the holidays”.

“We have worked really hard to find a way to do this for students, while limiting the risk of transmission. Now it is vital they follow these measures to protect their families and communities, and for universities to make sure students have all the well-being support they need, especially those who stay on campus over the break,” Ms Donelan said.

The DfE said that universities were “expected to make plans to ensure students can travel home safely at the end of term, working with local public health officials and transport operators”.

“Students should follow the government’s travel guidance…avoiding busy routes and times, and limiting car sharing with only their household or bubble where possible,” the department said.

The announcement adds that English students studying in England, Wales or Northern Ireland who have not been subject to the four-week lockdown “should undertake at least 14 days of restricted contact either before or after returning home to minimise their risk of transmission”.

Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union, said that the government’s plans were “riddled with holes and raise as many questions as they answer”.

“Allowing just a week for around 1 million students to travel across the country leaves little room for error,” Dr Grady said. “If the government instead told universities to move online now it would provide much more time to stagger the movement of students and better protect the health of staff, students and their wider communities.”

Dr Grady added that the plans for mass testing “fall far short of universal coverage, with some universities set to receive no tests”.

“The government has created a situation where students and staff are still going onto campus for in-person teaching during a lockdown. Any student who is not able to be tested will either have to spend 14 days in isolation after that lockdown ends, alone in student accommodation, or risk spreading the virus,” Dr Grady said.

Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group, said that a mandatory cut-off date for in-person teaching “does create practical challenges for universities, which our members will now work hard to mitigate”.

And a Universities UK spokeswoman highlighted that some students “will now miss out on timetabled placements, practical classes and other in-person teaching near the end of term”.

“The government must now urgently turn its attention to working with the sector on plans to ensure students can safely resume their studies in person in January, supported by enhanced testing capability,” UUK said.

chris.havergal@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

"On-campus students are barred from returning home at the moment under the rules of England’s four-week Covid-19 lockdown" Really? We saw a large number flee before the lockdown, but parents are still coming down and retrieving students now, it'll be interesting to see just how many are left to travel during the 'window', and how many remain in Halls and Hovels of Multiple Occupation over Christmas. Those that opt not to be tested, we've had weekly testing for all on campus here with a large percentage opting not to be tested (unsurprising one positive and the whole flat/hovel are SUPPOSED to self isolate), will still travel, and the odd's are some will be infected and infectious. And it's the Universities, rightly or wrongly, who will get the blame.

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