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Donelan seeks ‘staggered return’ for students after Christmas

Universities minister prioritises medical students for January return in Department for Education guidance

All students will be offered a Covid-19 test when they return to university next year in staggered waves, the UK government has promised.

On 2 December the Department for Education (DfE) revealed that universities will be asked to space out students’ return to campus over five weeks from 4 January to 7 February.

Medical students and those on practical courses requiring face-to-face teaching will be prioritised, returning to university between 4 and 18 January. All other students can return to campus from 25 January to 7 February.

Lateral flow tests

The DfE said all universities will be able to give students two lateral flow tests for Covid-19 three days apart, with results available within an hour. Many universities are already offering students these tests before they go home for Christmas, as part of the government’s mass testing scheme, despite some criticism of the tests’ accuracy.

Universities minister Michelle Donelan said the plan would “enable a safer return for all students”, but it must be done “in a way which minimises the risk of transmission”.

“I know students have had to make sacrifices this year and have faced a number of challenges, but this staggered return will help to protect students, staff and communities,” she added.

The government also announced £20 million of funding to support students in financial hardship during the return to university period.

‘Covid-safe in-person teaching’

Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK, said the staggered approach to next term would “allow enhanced testing capacity to be maximised so that Covid-safe in-person teaching can begin at the start of term for some students, and shortly after for others”.

“Universities now need further clarity from the government on how they will be supported to deliver testing in the new year, given the significant resource requirements associated with the pilots so far,” he added.

Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group, said that clarity on the government’s plan for managing the return of students would be helpful for universities and students. “Our members will now be working hard to implement it and make students aware,” he said.

Online learning ‘U-turn’

But the University and College Union labelled the guidance a U-turn.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: “After months of campaigning by UCU, the government has finally seen sense and said that online learning should be the default position until at least 8 February. The government’s insistence that students could return to universities to receive in-person teaching has led to almost 50,000 cases of Covid on campus—and may have helped instigate the second wave.”