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Campuses to remain partially closed until mid-May at earliest


Department for Education confirms there will be evidence review ahead of students' return in England

The government has confirmed that university campuses in England will not fully reopen for in-person teaching until mid-May at the earliest.

In a statement on 13 April, the Department for Education said that those students who have not yet returned will not be permitted to do so until “step 3” of its coronavirus roadmap at the earliest, which is scheduled for 17 May.

Currently, only those with a significant practical element to their course can attend face-to-face lectures and seminars, which the DfE says amounts to 49 per cent of all students.

Any full reopening on 17 May will be “dependent on a review of the latest data”, the DfE said.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, expressed frustration that the restrictions “are tougher in England than elsewhere, but without a clear rationale”.

“The announcement [that all students will not return until at least 17 May] is not only late and questionable, but it also suggests education lacks the priority that, earlier in the crisis, we were led to believe it would have,” he told Research Professional News.

Employers have been calling for a much earlier reopening of campuses. Universities UK, which represents vice-chancellors, wrote to prime minister Boris Johnson on 6 April, arguing that it was “illogical” not to allow students to return to campuses from 12 April, given that other venues—such as pubs, zoos and hairdressers—were opening up.

However, the University and College Union has lobbied for online teaching to continue until the pandemic is over.

Speaking on 12 April, UCU general secretary Jo Grady said that even restarting in-person teaching in mid-May “makes absolutely no sense, as most lectures and seminars will already have finished”.

“It would also place undue pressure on staff who are already facing burnout from the chaotic and unsustainable demands placed on them this year,” she added. “Too many universities are still calling for in-person activities and ‘blended learning’. Instead, they should focus on providing proper health and wellbeing support to students and staff, as well as helping staff prepare for the next academic year.”

Andrew Westwood, professor of government practice and vice-dean for social responsibility at the University of Manchester—and a former advisor to the Treasury—said the DfE had “acted too late”.

“Many students [whose courses are not being taught in person] will either be back already or will have made plans to return this week,” he told Research Professional News. “As we know, many are paying for accommodation and the lack of financial support is an ongoing problem—as is a lack of support for people that can’t afford to isolate.”

Westwood added that with pubs, restaurants, shops and Students’ Unions re-opening, more students would be keen to return to their term-time accommodation. “They know that things are opening up and that travel is okay, so really it’s poor policy because it is lagging well behind behaviour on the ground,” he said. “Amongst other things this rather undermines any public health arguments.”

Response from the sector

Julia Buckingham, president, Universities UK:

“This is hugely disappointing news for all those students in England who have been learning online since December, and comes at a crucial time in the academic year when in-person support from tutors and friends is highly valued by students ahead of their end-of-year exams.

“We know that many are desperate to return to use facilities and take part in Covid-safe in-person teaching, learning and other activities—which the government has previously recognised as essential to their mental health and wellbeing.

“Universities have proven that the safety measures put in place—including regular asymptomatic testing, additional cleaning, support for self-isolating students, and adherence to guidance on ventilation and face coverings—are enabling effective management of the virus on campuses, with minimal infection rates in face-to-face teaching settings and limited onward transmission to local communities.

“With schools, colleges and many businesses open, we now need the government to urgently explain how it reached this decision so that universities can communicate with their students and continue preparing to maximise opportunities for in-person activities from 17 May.”

Greg Walker, chief executive, Million Plus:

“This is a deeply disappointing announcement from the government given that all adult further education students returned to in-person teaching this week and that all of Wales’s university students are also receiving face-to-face teaching again. There is a strong case for an early return to in-person teaching for all students within a blended learning model. I would ask that the government confirms, within the next week, that the 17 May date cited is a definite return date for in-person teaching for the those not currently receiving it.”

Tim Bradshaw, chief executive, the Russell Group:

“The government’s announcement today means that around one million university students will be unable to resume in-person teaching until at least mid-May. This includes students on courses such as business, law, maths, accounting and languages.

“Whilst we recognise the need for caution as lockdown measures are eased, the government’s decision today is a major blow. It fails to take into account the data which shows the safety of teaching spaces, and the very low infection rates at universities right now, despite the majority of students being on campus. We urge the government to reconsider its decision to ensure these students are not forgotten and can resume in-person teaching as soon as possible.”

Jo Grady, general secretary, University and College Union:

“The UK government has consistently disregarded the needs of university staff and students throughout this pandemic, treating them as an afterthought at best. So, unfortunately, it is no surprise that it has only confirmed university learning will remain online the day after many students have already started their summer term.

“Ministers now need to be honest with staff and students, and confirm most courses will stay online until September, which is what UCU has been calling for. Restarting in-person activities in mid-May—with only weeks of the academic year left—makes absolutely no sense, as not only lectures and seminars, but many students’ exams, will already have finished.”

Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, vice-president for higher education, National Union of Students:

“We are pleased that the government has finally remembered that students exist, and started to fill the information vacuum of its own making. Our priority has always been that students and staff go back to a safe campus, and this be led by scientific advice, but the silence has been galling.

“While incredibly late in the day, today’s announcement will at least allow students to make necessary arrangements to access their learning and accommodation. However, after almost a year’s worth of disruption, there is still much to be done to ensure students receive adequate support to succeed in the time that is left of this academic year.”

This article was updated on 14 April to include more responses.