V-cs ‘disappointed’ as PM fails to set date for campus reopening

Government has promised to provide update on plan for return of all students in England by end of Easter holidays

April 5, 2021
York, UK, England, 24-10-2020, Advisory sign on lamp post in the city Centre advising people observe the social distancing guidelines
Source: iStock

Sector leaders have expressed disappointment that the Westminster government did not set out a plan for the full reopening of English university campuses in the latest easing of coronavirus restrictions.

Vice-chancellors had been pushing for students on all courses to be allowed to return to face-to-face teaching from 12 April, with the government having promised to give at least a week’s notice of any changes. Currently only students on practical and priority courses are receiving in-person tuition.

But updated guidance published after a government briefing on 5 April leaves the existing arrangements unchanged. Ministers have promised to give an update by the end of the Easter holidays, and some universities’ summer terms are due to start on 12 April. Others remain on a break until later in the month.

Vanessa Wilson, the chief executive of the Universities Alliance mission group, said that she was “disappointed” that the prime minister “has made no commitment for the remaining higher education students to be allowed to return to campus and in-person teaching from 12 April”.

“This is despite overwhelming evidence that our university campuses remain Covid-secure with minimal outbreaks and risk to the wider community. We will continue to work closely with the minister for universities and Department for Education senior officials to make the case for the urgent return of all remaining students,” Ms Wilson said.

The updated guidance says that universities “should not ask students to return if their course can reasonably be continued online”.

“All other students should continue to learn remotely. They should remain at their current accommodation until they return to in-person teaching,” the guidance says.

The failure to set out a plan for reopening campuses at this stage will add to vice-chancellors’ fears that the full reopening of campuses could be pushed back to mid-May or beyond.

Universities estimate that as many as half of England’s 2.1 million higher education students are still being taught fully online, and warn that mid-May is usually the start of exam season, so students returning at that point would be unlikely to receive significant amounts of in-person teaching.

Concerns have been raised about the impact of the lack of face-to-face learning on students’ mental health. But unions have said that courses should be taught online until the end of the academic year wherever possible to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

Steve West, vice-chancellor of the University of the West of England and incoming president of Universities UK, wrote on Twitter that the lack of a plan to reopen campuses was “frustrating”.

“I hope that we won’t have to wait much longer to provide clarity and certainty for tens of thousands of our students,” Professor West said.

THE understands that the DfE is keen to get most students back to in-person teaching as soon after Easter as possible but is facing resistance from others in government who worry that mass movement of students could increase Covid transmission.

Speaking prior to the latest government update, a DfE spokesman said that the government was “committed to getting all students back into university as soon as the public health situation allows”.

“We will be reviewing options for the timing of the return of all remaining students by the end of the Easter holidays,” the spokesman said. “Decisions will take into account the need to protect progress across the wider road map out of the pandemic, including the spread of the virus in communities and pressures on the NHS.”

chris.havergal@timeshighereducation.com

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