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UK universities left in limbo as schools and colleges told to close

Education secretary says he ‘supports vice-chancellors’ in their decisions, amid confusion

Labour and the UK’s biggest university union have accused the government of not giving proper guidance to universities on whether they should be closing amid the coronavirus outbreak.

On 18 March, prime minister Boris Johnson used his daily press conference on the crisis to urge schools, colleges and nurseries to close down except for the children of key workers.

But whether universities should close has not been clarified.

On Monday 16 March, the education secretary Gavin Williamson said universities should remain open

But even before today’s developments many universities had begun closing and moving teaching online, or even closing buildings entirely and sending researchers home.

In the House of Commons on 18 March, just before Johnson gave his press conference, Williamson said the country was “facing increasingly difficult challenges”. “The spike of the virus is increasing at a faster pace than anticipated,” he said. But he did not say the government would order universities to close.

“I know that many universities and other higher education institutions are already taking necessary steps to keep their staff and students safe and where possible keep providing education,” said Williamson.

“I am confident vice-chancellors are making the right decisions and my department continues to support them in doing so. This is a testing time for the whole nation.”

In response, Labour’s Angela Rayner called for more guidance for the higher education sector. “Is it not now time for him to avoid all doubt by issuing clear guidance protecting staff and students alike?” she asked.

Jo Grady, the general secretary of the University and College Union, said she was “disappointed” that the decision to close schools did not also apply to universities.

“We need to see much more urgency from the government and university leaders in shutting down as much as possible to reduce unnecessary contact on campuses and to protect the health of students and staff,” she said. “The current piecemeal range of responses is causing understandable confusion and uncertainty. We recognise there will be necessary core functions that continue, but clear direction, and action, at this time is vital for all staff and students."

On 17 March, the Office for Students wrote to vice-chancellors to say that it would “adapt” its approach to regulation and would be,“unlikely to draw negative conclusions about the actions a provider has taken—or not taken—where it is clear to us that it has properly considered the needs of its students and has made a reasonable decision.”

In his statement, Gavin Williamson also said that A Level exams would be cancelled this year, leaving students and universities in further doubt about how admissions to higher education would work in September.

The Office for Students referred questions to the Department for Education, which declined to elaborate on Williamson’s statement to parliament.

Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of vice-chancellors’ group Universities UK, said, “The health and well-being of all students and staff is the number one priority and a range of measures are being taken to keep university communities well-informed, supported and safe. The government understands that universities must continue some essential services and cannot fully be locked down given students living on many campuses and some areas of research that cannot be left unmonitored.”

UPDATED 19/3—This story was updated after publication with comment from UUK and the UCU.