Students on practical courses back to English campuses next month

More students to return from 8 March, but other learners must keep studying online until a review by the end of the Easter holidays

February 22, 2021
Masked student in laboratory
Source: iStock

Students at English universities who require practical teaching, specialist facilities or on-site assessments will be allowed to return to campus from 8 March.

Setting out his road map out of lockdown in the House of Commons, Boris Johnson said all other students must continue to learn online for at least the rest of term. The government will review plans for the return of these students by the end of the Easter holidays.

In an accompanying document published by the Cabinet Office, the government says the review “will take account of the latest data and will then be a key part of the wider roadmap steps”.

Institutions will be given at least a week’s notice ahead of reopening, the document says. Vice-chancellors have previously warned that they would need as much notice as possible to ensure a safe and smooth opening of campuses.

Until now, only students on a small number of courses – largely medicine and other health-related subjects, education and social work – have been receiving face-to-face tuition.

On the delay in bringing all students back to campuses, the Cabinet Office document says the government “recognises the difficulties and disruption that this may cause for many students and their families where they remain unable to return to higher education settings, but it is necessary to limit the number of students who return to university at this stage to minimise travel and manage the risk of transmission”.

Students will be able to take two lateral flow tests for coronavirus on campus every week. Staff and students will be expected to wear face coverings in all indoor environments, including classrooms, unless 2m social distancing can be maintained.

Greg Walker, chief executive of the MillionPlus group of modern universities, said institutions were “focused on safely returning students to campus as soon as government health advice confirms that this is allowed”.

“Our priority is to ensure continued high-quality education for those the government asks to continue to learn remotely for now, alongside a Covid-secure experience for those students who have already returned and the practical students who will be permitted to return from 8 March,” Dr Walker said.

Dr Walker added that universities were “working flat out to ensure that all students can successfully complete their academic year’s study this summer, particularly enabling those finishing this summer to qualify with their degree or diploma”.

But Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union, said bringing more students back to campuses at the same time that schools and colleges were reopening was “irresponsible”.

“Pushing students and staff back on-site increases the risk of more Covid outbreaks and threatens to undo the country’s hard work to get infection rates down,” Dr Grady said.

The UCU said lateral flow tests were “completely unsuitable” for use on campus, warning that incorrect negative results “may give people a false sense of security”.

“We expect employers to keep teaching online wherever possible to prevent campuses from seeding the virus. For many courses, this will mean no return to campus this academic year,” Dr Grady said.

“The UCU accepts that some university and college courses will need some in-person teaching, but this needs to be very carefully managed to keep staff and students safe. Employers will need to agree new risk assessments with our health and safety representatives that take account of increased transmission rates of new variants, ventilation, PPE and how vulnerable employees will be supported to stay off campus.”

Data released earlier by the Department for Education showed that most of the confirmed coronavirus cases among students at English universities over the past six months were recorded in the first few weeks of the autumn term. However, staff cases peaked last month.

In total, institutions have recorded about 65,000 Covid-19 cases among students and some 8,000 among staff.

Dr Grady said that if UCU members felt that their health and safety was being put at risk, “then we will support them to protect themselves, including through balloting for industrial action where necessary”.

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