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Fewer practical students to return to English campuses

Donelan includes medical and teaching students in tougher rules following Covid-19 surge

England will introduce restrictions on the number of on-site practical students—including those studying medicine and teaching—in January due to a spike in coronavirus cases across the country.

“This is not a decision we have taken lightly but it is a necessary step, given the rates of transmission across England,” said universities minister Michelle Donelan in a 30 December letter to MPs.

Due to the implementation of Tier 4 restrictions in numerous regions after the emergence of a more virulent strain of coronavirus, some students in medicine and dentistry, veterinary science, education and social work will be asked not to return to campuses, Donelan said.

The return of all other students should be postponed until at least the week of 25 January, she added.

The letter follows a statement on the same day by the UK education secretary Gavin Williamson, who said that fewer university students would be permitted on campuses in January than previously planned. However, Williamson said that students taking subjects with practical elements that require in-person teaching would undergo a staggered return between 4 and 18 January.

Donelan encouraged universities to ensure “appropriate support and access to study space” for students who remained on campus, including international students and those with “compelling reasons” to return, such as lacking space at home.

International students currently abroad “should consider delaying if travel can be rearranged without undue costs”, she said. Donelan added that the government expects universities to test all returning students upon arrival on campuses from 4 January.

Donelan wrote that researchers and research students “should be treated on the same basis as employees” and work from home if they are able to do so, but permitted to return to work on-site if they need access to specialised facilities. In limited cases, students needing to take a professional exam that cannot be postponed will also be allowed to return to campuses.

On 31 December, Donelan clarified that changes to the return policy would be reflected in the government’s updated Spring 2021 guidance. The government will review its decision and provide more details in the week of 18 January, Donelan said.