V-cs push for students to return to English campuses next month

Unions continue to resist idea of expanding face-to-face tuition further this year

March 11, 2021
Reopening soon
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University leaders in England are pushing for most students to be allowed back on to campuses after Easter if Covid-19 infection rates continue to fall.

Universities would like to see a large proportion of undergraduates return on 12 April, the next stage of the easing of lockdown restrictions, particularly as the next reopening phase in mid-May is usually the start of exam season, one leader told Times Higher Education. Any later would be pointless because the year would be almost over, they said.

On 8 March, students at English universities who require practical teaching were allowed to return to campus as part of the first stage of the easing of the national lockdown. The government has said that it will set out the strategy for all other students by the end of the Easter holidays and that universities will be given at least one week’s notice of the plans.

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

One sector leader told THE that they hoped that such anxieties could be eased by recent research that indicated that while university halls could become vectors of Covid, there was little evidence of transmission into the wider community.

The research also concluded that staggering the return of students, as has been suggested by the government, would not reduce transmission among students.

Greg Walker, chief executive of the MillionPlus mission group, said “university staff have moved mountains to make campuses Covid-secure since the outset of the pandemic”.

As case numbers fall and society cautiously reopens, getting students back to in-person teaching would be “particularly important”, he said. “Universities look forward – with the science and government guidance permitting – to welcoming all students back to campus as soon as this is responsible and permitted.”

One vice-chancellor told THE they hoped that restrictions would ease up around Easter because students themselves are keen for in-person teaching to recommence.

They pointed to data from the Office for National Statistics that showed that many students had returned to their term-time addresses already, even before the latest tranche of students were allowed to return.

“The obvious challenge will be to encourage staff who have been away from campus for a year that it’s safe for them to return,” the vice-chancellor said.

However, the University and College Union said it would continue to call for teaching to stay online until the end of the year wherever it was possible.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said “universities should not be asking hundreds of thousands of students to return to campus for in-person teaching after Easter when most courses will only have revision classes and exams left”.

“It will be much safer to remain online until the start of the next academic year, when many more people will have been vaccinated. Universities must work with us to protect staff and student safety. If our members feel their health and safety is being put at risk, we will support them to protect themselves, including through balloting for industrial action where necessary,” she said.

“University staff are burnt out from the chaotic and unsustainable demands that the sector has placed on them this year, and we will not let universities sacrifice their well-being on the altar of short-term financial incentives.”


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