From education to employment

Updated guidance to support leaders minimise Covid-19 risk while ensuring students experience university life

Emma Hardy MP, Shadow Minister for Universities

@EmmaHardyMP, @UKLabour’s Shadow Universities Minister, has written to @EducationGovUK, calling for them to “get a grip before it is too late”, outlining the Party’s calls to improve testing and digital access. 

Labour yesterday (9 Sept) wrote to the government demanding that they urgently implement a credible plan to ensure that universities can reopen safely, including action on testing, digital access, and public health measures on campus.

The Party’s call for further action follows the publication of guidance by SAGE that warned that universities could be a site of increased transmission of coronavirus, and the recent surge in confirmed infections is driven by an increase in cases in young people. 

The Department for Education has today (10 Sept) updated its guidance in line with the latest public health advice from SAGE, which was clear that there is no scientific basis that face-to-face teaching is unsafe as long as COVID-secure plans are in place.

Labour has warned that the government has not yet delivered a credible plan that will ensure that the reopening of universities does not lead to a significant spike in coronavirus cases locally and nationally. 

In a letter to the Universities Minister, Hardy calls on the government to urgently ensure adequate testing capacity in university communities and explore a programme of mass testing that would include those who do not have symptoms. The letter also calls for steps to ensure that all students can access learning remotely where they need to, and clear national guidance on the use of facemasks on campus to help reduce the spread of the virus. 

Labour is calling for a credible national plan to reduce transmission of coronavirus and support students in higher education, including 

All students, staff, and members of the wider community must be able to get a test when they need one. The government must also explore a programme of mass testing that would include those who do not have symptoms. 

Additional support to ensure every young person can access education remotely to enable self isolation; 

Clear guidance on wearing facemasks on campus to reduce transmission; 

The government must work with universities to ensure that students and staff are able to study safely on campus, and ensure students are able to self-isolate to protect the community by ensuring access to remote education. Student hardship funds, or other maintenance support, should be made available to universities to ensure that every student is able to access education remotely, with digital access and a device. 

Some universities have been able to put their own testing systems in place, but institutions that are able to do this are likely to be those with large medical schools, with the relevant expertise and capacity; 

The University of Leicester will be providing testing to staff and students, as well as the wider community, when they return to campus later this month

During the coronavirus (COVID-19) lockdown, an Office for Students review into Digital Poverty highighted that, 52 per cent of students said their learning was impacted by slow or unreliable internet connection, with 8 per cent ‘severely’ affected.  56 per cent said they lacked access to appropriate online course materials, with 9 per cent ‘severely’ impacted. 18 per cent were impacted by lack of access to a computer, laptop or tablet – 4 per cent said they were ‘severely’ impacted

Many universities are bringing in requirements for face coverings to be worn on campus, including Oxford, Cambridge, and Ulster university.

At his press conference yesterday afternoon (9 Sept), Boris Johnson said that government guidance would include “a clear request not to send students home in the event of an outbreak so as to avoid spreading the virus across the country”.

Sector response to the Government’s new guidance on universities reopening

Emma Hardy MP, Labour’s Shadow Universities Minister, said:

“Labour has called for the Government to deliver a testing system that is fit for purpose and to ensure that every student is able to learn remotely when they need to.

“This Government have repeatedly failed to get a grip on testing or give students, staff, and communities the support they need as universities reopen.

“It is frustrating and disappointing that this inadequate guidance has arrived so late, just as students are set to return.”

UCU said the Prime Minister should be working to prevent unnecessary Covid outbreaks, not creating the conditions for them. The union said universities should move the majority of teaching online to avoid students having to travel across the country and risk being locked down in unfamiliar surroundings.

Jo Grady 100x100UCU general secretary Jo Grady said:

‘Even by the government’s standards, these plans are ridiculously irresponsible. Mixed messages and contradictory advice might be his stock in trade, but the Prime Minister cannot in good conscience tell students to go back to university when he knows more outbreaks are likely and that would result in them being locked down hundreds of miles from home.

‘The Prime Minister should be working to prevent unnecessary Covid outbreaks, not creating the conditions for them. Students and their parents will be rightly worried about being locked down in an unfamiliar area, possibly over Christmas.

‘The sensible thing to do is to move most teaching online for this term and look to reopen campuses more widely only when that can be done safely. Students need to be released from accommodation contracts they do not need, and staff must be given assurances they will not be asked to deliver in person, what can be done remotely. The health and wellbeing of university staff, students and the wider community are too important to gamble with, this is not business as usual.’

A Russell Group spokesperson said:

“We welcome the updated guidance from the DfE, which recognises the work our universities have been doing to ensure campuses are ready and safe for the new academic year. The steps taken by universities will help to reduce transmission on campus and in the wider community, so students will be able benefit from a blend of high quality online and face to face teaching delivered in safe and effective way.

“Our members are also working with students to remind them of their duty to the wider community and the importance of following government guidance, with many putting in place new or enhanced agreements on responsible behaviour.

“In addition to the steps being taken by our universities, we would urge the Government to ensure that sufficient local testing capacity is in place. Our universities will continue to work with local authorities to set up a coordinated approach so transmission risks are minimised and any outbreaks can be managed appropriately.”

Michelle Donelan 100x100Universities Minister Michelle Donelan said:

“The safety and wellbeing of university staff and students is our priority.

“Universities have been making a mammoth effort to safely open campuses and buildings to students this autumn, and the Government has worked closely with them to ensure they are well prepared for the return of students.

“The updated guidance includes the recent SAGE advice and will help university leaders access the information they need, and assist their existing plans to keep students and staff as safe as possible.”

Michelle Donelan continued:

“Health advice only works if we all follow it. I urge students, just like the wider public, to do their bit and act responsibly to ensure campuses can remain open for them to use and enjoy.

“As a Government, we have clearly set out the consequences for anyone who risks spreading the virus, whether that’s through illicit social gatherings or organising large events. The police and local authorities will take serious action where it is necessary.” 

Labour writes to Universities Minister demanding “credible plan” as universities reopen

Emma Hardy MP, Labour’s Shadow Universities Minister, said: 

“With only a matter of weeks until campuses reopen, the government must act now to ensure that universities are able to reopen safely. With the number of coronavirus cases rising, the government must get a grip before it is too late. 

“Universities and their staff have worked tirelessly to ensure that they can reopen safely, and now the government must do their part to reassure communities and students that there’s the infrastructure in place to support them.”

“After the chaos of recent days, Minsters must ensure adequate testing capacity in university communities, ensure that everyone has the digital access they need for remote learning, and explore the introduction of mass testing for all students.” 

The full text of Emma Hardy’s letter to the Universities Minister is below: 

Dear Michelle, 

In the weeks ahead almost 2 million students will begin a new academic year. The majority will be moving from one part of the country to another in the largest internal migration that we will see this year, while those studying at a local university will begin a new daily commute and mix with new arrivals. 

I am deeply concerned that this is taking place against the backdrop of rising coronavirus cases, with your Department still unable to outline the concrete measures that it will take in order to reduce the spread of the virus in higher education settings. 

SAGE warned on Friday 4 September that the movement and mixing of students that will follow makes “significant outbreaks” of Covid 19 “highly likely”. Infection rates have jumped rapidly in recent days, and while the Health Secretary has said that the rise in infections is largely among young people, this concern has not been matched by a credible plan from the Government. 

It is time for the government to outline a set of clear measures that will help to reduce the spread of coronavirus, keep campuses and communities safe, and ensure that students are able to learn remotely where necessary. 

First and foremost, we must act to reduce transmission of coronavirus. If SAGE is concerned that the return to universities could lead to an increase in cases, and the Health Secretary believes young people have driven recent spikes in case numbers, then it is time for the government to take immediate action. 

What steps has your Department taken to ensure that students are able to get tested when they return to university? What steps have been taken to ensure that there is sufficient testing capacity that the wider communities in which universities operate can also access testing?  Will there be additional testing put in place to support members of the staff and student population that face a greater risk from coronavirus? 

The chaos of the last few days – which has seen people who are concerned that they have coronavirus directed to travel hundreds of miles just to get tested – will have left confidence in the system utterly shaken. Immediate action is needed to rectify this. 

As a minimum, the Government must urgently ensure that all students, staff, and members of the wider community are able to access a test when they need one. 

Alongside this, the government must explore a programme of mass testing to include those who do not have symptoms. Mass testing could help to reduce the spread of the virus and build confidence in universities and their communities that students are able to return safely. 

With many universities adopting blended or remote learning for a number of courses, and further local restrictions making this more likely, it is more important than ever that every young person has the digital access they need to learn.

What steps has your Department taken to ensure that students have sufficient digital access? In what circumstances would the Department expect universities to move to providing blended or remote learning? 

The Office for Students has already found that the majority of students could be negatively affected by a lack of digital access. Without digital access many students, particularly those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, will simply be locked out of their education. This cannot be justified, and your Department must urgently work with universities to ensure that every student can access remote learning. 

To push this issue on to individual universities or students would be a dereliction of duty by your Department. You must immediately set out the steps you will take to ensure that no student is locked out of their education this year. 

I am concerned that student and staff voices are not being heard because of the refusal to include the National Union of Students and University College Union on the Taskforce and I urge you to reconsider your decision.  

Finally, it is essential that university campuses are a safe place to study and work in the months ahead. Your Department and the Office for Students have a key role to play in reducing the transmission of the virus on campus. 

What steps have the Department and regulator taken to support universities in reducing the spread of coronavirus? 

The government has already acknowledged that masks should be worn in secondary schools when social distancing is not possible, and many individual universities have rightly adopted this approach as well. But once again there has been a lack of national leadership or planning from your Department. 

To help reduce the spread of coronavirus in universities, the Office for Students should urgently issue guidance calling for face coverings to be worn in indoor areas on campus, bringing this in line with other parts of our education system. 

While universities are autonomous institutions, it is important that your Department provides clear leadership and support on such essential matters of public health. It is time to stop passing the buck to individual universities and to deliver a national plan that ramps up testing, drives down transmission, and allows students to learn while keeping staff, students, and the community safe. 

Universities have gone to great lengths to ensure that they can reopen safely, and it is essential that students understand and follow the measures that are put in place. In Scotland new guidance places a clear expectation that noncompliance would be treated seriously. Is your Department or the regulator considering similar steps in England?

Last night the government announced new restrictions on social interactions, but there is still no clarity on guidance for universities. The government must act urgently to provide clarity to students, staff, and university communities on the support they will receive in the weeks ahead. 

I hope that you will adopt these proposals, and urgently outline the steps your Department will be taking to achieve these goals. 

I look forward to your response. 

Yours sincerely, 

Emma Hardy MP, Shadow Minister for Universities

Updated guidance for universities ahead of reopening 

  • Follows latest SAGE advice confirming a mix of face-to-face teaching and online learning can be conducted safely in well-managed environments
  • Minister urges collective action and responsibility from students to ensure campuses can remain open

Government guidance to help universities make campuses as safe as possible has been updated ahead of students starting the new term.

Universities have been working hard to make campuses as safe as possible, including through enhanced cleaning measures, good ventilation, social distancing on campus and changes to timetables to stagger or reduce attendance on site.

The Government already recommends face coverings are worn in all communal and enclosed spaces. Universities can choose to adopt the use of face coverings as part of their wider COVID-secure measures, particularly where social distancing cannot be maintained or it is difficult to provide good ventilation. 

The updated guidance includes advice on what a provider should do in the event of a local lockdown, track and trace procedures, the creation of new households in student accommodation and reflects the latest social gathering restrictions coming into force on Monday.

The SAGE group has made clear that teaching in person is important and fully online provision would have an impact on students’ mental health. Where practical work occurs in close contact like medicine, dentistry and performing arts, universities should follow advice for the relevant professional environment.

In areas subject to local lockdown, four tiers of restrictions have been set out for education settings:

Tier 1: HE providers are expected to provide blended learning, with face-to-face tuition, following the provisions of this guidance, and public health guidance, including, for example, the appropriate use of face coverings.

Tier 2: HE providers should move to an increased level of online learning where possible. Providers should prioritise the continuation of face-to-face provision based on their own risk assessment. We expect that, in the majority of cases, this will be for those courses where it is most beneficial (for example clinical or practical learning and research).

Tier 3: HE providers should increase the level of online learning to retain face to face provision for priority courses (e.g. clinical and medical courses), and in as limited number of situations as possible. Students should follow government advice to remain in their current accommodation to reduce the risk of transmitting the virus through travel, and providers should support this by keeping services like university libraries and catering open.

Tier 4: We expect the majority of provision to be online, with buildings open for essential workers only. This should include the continuation of essential research.

In student accommodation, universities are expected to identify ‘households’ to manage routine contact as safely as possible. These households in halls of residence would be students living in the same flat or on the same floor who share a kitchen or bathroom.

The guidance also sets out that universities should have strong test and trace measures in place and plans for local outbreaks, whether in student accommodation or in certain academic departments, so that action can be taken quickly. Public Health England may recommend additional measures in the event of a local outbreak and across all sectors.

The guidance forms one part of the wider Government advice relevant to higher education, and is complemented by guidance on track and trace and for landlords on renting and coronavirus.

The Universities Minister has also urged students, along with the wider public, to act responsibly as they return to campus. It follows warnings – most recently raised by the Prime Minister – for young people to follow social distancing rules, and reports that some companies have been advertising mass social Fresher’s events.

New restrictions coming into force on Monday mean social gatherings of more than six people will be against the law both indoors and outdoors, including at places like pubs and restaurants.  

Universities can still welcome students back later this month and plans for teaching will not be impacted. All social activities will need to comply with the latest measures, though students will still be able to socialise with the same ‘household’ they form in their student accommodation.

The Government has launched a campaign to help students understand the latest advice and guidance to keep them as safe as possible. Activity includes local advertisements, partnerships with social media platforms popular with students, working with universities and providing a toolkit to support universities to deliver messaging as part of their own communications directly to their students.

Guidance for higher education providers in England on when and how to reopen their campuses and buildings.


Higher education: reopening buildings and campuses


Higher education coronavirus (COVID-19) NHS Test and Trace handbook

PDF, 199KB, 10 pages


This guidance is for:

  • higher education providers
  • partner organisations

Published 3 June 2020
Last updated 10 September 2020 + show all updates

  1. Updated HE provider guidance and added Higher Education coronavirus (COVID19) NHS Test and Trace handbook.

  2. Performing arts, transport and international students and self-isolation sections updated.

  3. Updates on social distancing, demographic, library, social gathering, performing arts and student accommodation guidance.

  4. Updated ‘Staff and student wellbeing’ section.

  5. First published.

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