Student returns to English campuses restricted for early January

Government gives priority for medical subjects to restart in first weeks of January, with wider student return ‘kept under review’

December 30, 2020
UK houses of parliament
Source: iStock

The government has further restricted the number of students eligible to return to English universities in early January and has pledged to keep the wider return of students “under review”.

With rising coronavirus cases across the UK, the Department for Education has reduced the number of courses that can return to campus earlier in January, prioritising medical subjects.

Universities were told by ministers in December to stagger the return of students throughout January, with students on courses that required placements, practical teaching or specialist equipment returning between 4 and 18 January, and the rest returning from 25 January onwards.

The DfE set out a list of courses that should be considered for the earlier start, including nursing and midwifery, scientific or technology-based subjects, music, dance, drama and the performing arts, and art and design.

However, in a statement on 30 December, the DfE said “for universities, the courses where students are eligible to return in early January have been further restricted, prioritising medical and other courses where face to face teaching is necessary, to reduce the number of students travelling over this period”.

It has not yet released the new, reduced list, but Times Higher Education understands that the majority of courses allowed to return in early January will be medical subjects.

The statement also said “the wider return of students currently planned for the two-week period beginning 25 January will be kept under review”.

The announcement comes after two new variants of coronavirus have been detected in England and cases have seen a dramatic increase across the country.

The DfE also said that “all university students should be offered two rapid [coronavirus] tests” when they return to campus.

Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK, said that, as the public health situation has changed “quite dramatically” in a short period, it was “right that government and universities should look again at plans for the start of the spring term”.

“For universities, the safety and well-being of students and staff is the priority, and the sector will implement the new restrictions for England announced by the UK government with fewer students returning for face-to-face teaching, practicals and placements in early January,” he said. “Our immediate focus will be communicating with students with as much information as we can, as soon as we can, and reassuring them that universities will be there to support them and provide high-quality online teaching and learning until they can return to campus.

“Since the start of the pandemic, UK universities have proved to be extremely agile in reacting to the latest government and public health advice, while doing all they can to keep research going and students progressing – and the sector will once again manage these latest changes,” Mr Jarvis continued.

“Today’s announcement will understandably raise further issues and uncertainty – for students, universities and staff – which will need to be addressed by government over the coming weeks, including the need for financial support, regulatory flexibility and assessment changes.”

Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union, said: “Given the escalating rate of Covid cases, the government needs to halt all non-essential in-person teaching at colleges and universities until Easter. It needs to urge all university students who do not need to return to student accommodation to stay where they are, and release them from their accommodation contracts. Ministers must also ensure all students have the resources they need to learn remotely so that no one is left behind.”

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