V-cs fear logistical headache of staggered return to campuses

Leaders say they are happy to support safe return of students, but worry about timing and convincing staff

February 16, 2021
Hand drawn rainbow expressing thank to NHS and key workers displayed at glass window University of Greenwich during coronavirus outbreak
Source: iStock

Vice-chancellors have expressed concern that the Westminster government’s apparent preference for a staggered return of students to English campuses could lead to additional complications and may struggle to win staff support.

Currently only students studying a handful of subjects, such as medicine, are receiving in-person instruction while the nationwide coronavirus lockdown continues. Under one potential scenario, all final-year students on “practical” courses would return from 8 March, with remaining practical students coming back sometime after Easter, which is on 4 April this year. Other students would return from mid-May onwards.

The Department for Education is expected to publish the full details on 22 February, as part of the government’s plans for exiting lockdown.

Speaking to Times Higher Education, vice-chancellors said that they were keen to allow final-year and practical students to return to campuses safely, but one issue will be timing. The Easter term ends on 26 March for most institutions, meaning those returning on 8 March would only be on campus for three weeks. For some institutions, such as the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, term ends even earlier, on 18 March.

Meanwhile, the return of all students in mid-May also posed logistical problems, as this would usually be the start of the exam season. One vice-chancellor said that they hoped the government’s plan would be “set out as guidance and allow institutions to make their own decisions based on what is best for their set of students”.

Sir David Bell, vice-chancellor of the University of Sunderland, said it would be “important that we do get some notice of return so that this is not sprung on us at very short notice”.

But added that he supported giving priority to final-year students and those that need access to practical facilities.

Another leader told THE that persuading staff that it was safe to return to campus would be a big issue. The University and College Union (UCU) has repeatedly called for teaching to remain online for the rest of the academic year.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said that staff needed “certainty and stability” if they were to continue offering the best possible remote learning. “Students are not cattle and should not be directed around the country to buttress university bank balances through their accommodation payments,” she said.

“We will not let universities sacrifice staff and student well-being on the altar of short-term financial incentives. But we are prepared to work with universities in calling on the government to refund students for lost accommodation, as well as underwriting the other extra costs which universities are facing this year.”

Sunderland’s Sir David added that his university had “worked very closely with our staff and unions throughout the pandemic…when our students return, we will continue to be cautious in how we manage all face-to-face interactions”.

“I am confident therefore that when staff need to be on campus, they will want to be there to assist our students in their studies,” he said.

Sir Chris Husbands, vice-chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University, said that “obviously we will want to work closely in discussion with staff…Once we see the guidance we will be able to translate that into practicalities.”

A DfE spokeswoman said that “this has been a very difficult time for students, and we will continue to prioritise a full return to education settings in England as soon as possible”.

“Measures are currently in place to reduce transmission, we’ve been clear that the majority of students should not return to universities in England. They should study from their current residence where possible until at least 8 March,” the spokeswoman said.


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