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Government finally publishes plans for student Christmas return

Ministers outline ‘travel window’ guidance to allow students to go home for Christmas

The government has published long-awaited guidance outlining plans to ensure students at universities in England can return home for the Christmas break.

Under the plans, students will be allowed to travel home during what the Department for Education has termed a “student travel window”. Between 3 December and 9 December, universities in different regions will coordinate staggered departure dates in an effort to manage pressure on the transport system.

Until this time, students in England must continue to follow current Covid-19 restrictions at their term-time accommodation. The guidance, published on 11 November, states that universities should move learning online by 9 December to allow students who do wish to return home to continue their studies remotely.

On 10 November, it was revealed that universities minister Michelle Donelan had written to vice-chancellors detailing plans to introduce mass Covid-19 testing at university campuses. Today, the DfE confirmed that tests “will be offered to as many students as possible before they travel home for Christmas, with universities in areas of high prevalence prioritised”.

In the event that a student tests positive before their departure, they will need to remain in self-isolation for the required period of 10 days. The DfE says that the timescale allows these students to continue learning online while they complete the isolation period prior to returning home.

“We know this Christmas will feel different, and following this incredibly difficult year we are delivering on our commitment to get students back to their loved ones as safely as possible for the holidays,” Donelan said in a statement on 11 November.

“We have worked really hard to find a way to do this for students, while limiting the risk of transmission. Now it is vital they follow these measures to protect their families and communities, and for universities to make sure students have all the wellbeing support they need, especially those who stay on campus over the break.”

The DfE says that universities are now “expected to make plans to ensure students can travel home safely at the end of term, working with local public health officials and transport operators”. They have also been asked to provide “additional help and practical support to students”, particularly those who will remain on campus over Christmas—which may include international students, care leavers and those estranged from their families.

“Universities should ensure they are properly cared for and can access affordable food, medical and cleaning supplies if needed,” the DfE said. English students at universities in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland should follow the guidance relevant to where they are living before returning home, as well as self-isolating for 14 days before or after their journey home.

A spokesperson for Universities UK said that students and staff will “appreciate confirmation of the government’s end-of-term plans for English universities, given the prolonged uncertainty they have faced this year”.

“With universities being asked to end in-person learning by 9 December, some students will now miss out on timetabled placements, practical classes and other in-person teaching near the end of term,” the spokesperson added. “Universities will need to work with students and government to manage the challenges this creates.”

UUK said the government needed to “urgently turn its attention to working with the sector on plans to ensure students can safely resume their studies in person in January, supported by enhanced testing capability”.

Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union, said the government’s plans were “riddled with holes”, and that allowing just a week for around 1 million students to travel across the country “leaves little room for error”.

“If the government instead told universities to move online now it would provide much more time to stagger the movement of students and better protect the health of staff, students and their wider communities,” she added.

“It is unclear what extra support will be given to help potentially thousands of students who may need to isolate at the same time. The insistence on continuing with in-person teaching until 9 December is putting the health of the nation at risk by repeating the summer’s mass movement of students in just one week.

“There is still no information about what universities should do next term, risking the possibility of a third wave of Covid. The government must support students to learn remotely next term and work with universities to help release any students who wish to remain at home from their accommodation contracts.”

Further response to the government’s Christmas plans

Jenny Harries 
Deputy chief medical officer

“The mass movement of students across the country at the end of term presents a really significant challenge within the Covid-19 response. The measures announced today will help minimise that risk and help students get home to their families as safely as possible for Christmas. It is crucial that students follow the guidance in order to protect their families and the communities they return to.”

Tim Bradshaw 
Chief executive, the Russell Group

“The government confirming its position on the end of term is welcome. However, a mandatory cut-off date for in-person teaching to deliver a ‘student travel window’ does create practical challenges for universities, which our members will now work hard to mitigate.

“We call on government to work with the sector to provide clear guidance on how it believes the return to campus in the New Year should be managed to ensure students face as little disruption as possible to their ongoing studies and professional qualification requirements.”