Minister pledges students will be able to go home for Christmas

Gavin Williamson also says students should not be subject to additional lockdown measures

September 29, 2020
Houses of Parliament
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Students at English universities should not be subjected to specific additional lockdown measures and the government aims to ensure that all of them can return home for Christmas, though some may be required to self-isolate first, the education secretary has said.

Gavin Williamson – who has been criticised by Labour as an “invisible man” during the Covid crisis hitting higher education – delivered a statement to the House of Commons on 29 September on the return of students to campuses.

Thousands of students have been ordered to self-isolate and confined to their residences as coronavirus infections have spread through student accommodation.

Mr Williamson said: “I do not believe that we should look to inflict stricter measures on students or expect higher standards of students…than we would for any other section of society. There must be a parity.”

Following health secretary Matt Hancock’s refusal to guarantee that all students would be allowed to return home for the Christmas holidays, Mr Williamson said: “We are going to work with universities to ensure all students are supported to return home safely and spend Christmas with their loved ones if they choose to do so.”

He added: “Where there are specific circumstances that warrant it, there may be a requirement for some students to self-isolate at the end of term. And we will be working with the sector to ensure this is possible, including ending in-person teaching early if that is deemed to be necessary.”

The Department for Education will shortly publish guidance “so that every student will be able to spend Christmas with their family”, he continued.

Mr Williamson said that “the decision to keep universities open…has been the result of an enormous team effort throughout the university and higher education sector”.

Mr Williamson aimed to justify the government’s decision to allow universities to reopen: “We will not condemn a generation of young people by asking them to put their lives on hold for months or years ahead. We believe that universities are very well prepared to handle any outbreaks as they arise.”

Face-to-face teaching would continue where needed “wherever possible as part of a blended learning approach”, said Mr Williamson, rejecting calls from some quarters to move online only.

The DfE’s HE taskforce had worked with universities and the department had provided public health guidance to institutions, he continued.

On testing, he said that the DfE was “working with” the Department of Health “to ensure the testing capacity is sufficient for universities”.

He also said that universities were “able to call on £256 million provided by the government for hardship funding for students who have to isolate” – which appears to be a reference to existing funding for student access and retention.

Kate Green, Labour’s shadow education secretary, told the Commons in response: “The crisis now threatening our universities was predictable – and it was predicted.”

She said the education secretary had offered nothing new on testing – warning that some universities were having to find their own tests – and had offered “no plan to ensure the future of our universities”.

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