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Uni students will have one week to get home for Christmas with ‘Student Travel Window’ – Sector Response

Michelle Donelan
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Christmas guidance set out for university students by @educationgovuk with the ‘student travel window’ between the 3rd to 9th December 

University students will be able to travel home to spend Christmas with their families once the national restrictions end on 2 December, following steps set out in new Government guidance published today (11 November).  

In order to travel home safely, students in England will be required to follow the current national restrictions in place until 2 December, completing this four-week period in their term-time accommodation.      

From 3 December to 9 December, which will be known as the ‘student travel window’, students will be allowed to travel home on staggered departure dates set by universities, who will work with other institutions in the region to manage pressure on transport infrastructure.     

The student travel window will mean students can travel having just completed the four-week period of national restrictions, reducing the risk of transmission to family and friends at home.    

Universities should move learning online by 9 December so students can continue their education while also having the option to return home to study from there.   

As announced by the Prime Minister this week, the Government will also work closely with universities to establish mass testing capacity. Tests will be offered to as many students as possible before they travel home for Christmas, with universities in areas of high prevalence prioritised. This will provide further reassurance that where students test negative, they can return home safely and minimise the risk of passing coronavirus on to their loved ones.      

If a student tests positive before their departure they will need to remain in self-isolation for the required period of ten days. Moving all learning online by 9 December gives enough time for students to complete the isolation period and return home for Christmas.      

The guidance delivers on the Government’s pledge to ensure students can be with their families at Christmas while limiting transmission of the virus.    

Michelle Donelan 100x100Universities Minister Michelle Donelan said:       

“We know this Christmas will feel different, and following this incredibly difficult year we are delivering on our commitment to get students back to their loved ones as safely as possible for the holidays.      

“We have worked really hard to find a way to do this for students, while limiting the risk of transmission. 

“Now it is vital they follow these measures to protect their families and communities, and for universities to make sure students have all the wellbeing support they need, especially those who stay on campus over the break.”   

Emma Hardy 100x100Emma Hardy MP, Labour’s Shadow Universities Minister, said:

“After weeks of unnecessary delay the government have finally acknowledged Labour’s call from September that more must be done to get students home safely over Christmas.

“They must work with universities and local government to ensure that rapid and accurate testing is available for all students who need it.

“It is deeply concerning that the government still have no plan for what students should do in January. They must bring a plan forward urgently.”

Jo Grady 100x100UCU general secretary Jo Grady said:

‘The government has finally announced plans for students to return home before Christmas, but they are riddled with holes and raise as many questions as they answer.  Allowing just a week for around one million students to travel across the country leaves little room for error. If the government instead told universities to move online now it would provide much more time to stagger the movement of students and better protect the health of staff, students and their wider communities.

‘The plans for mass testing fall far short of universal coverage, with some universities set to receive no tests – and they come with immense practical challenges to overcome in a very short window. The government has created a situation where students and staff are still going onto campus for in-person teaching during a lockdown. Any student who is not able to be tested will either have to spend 14 days in isolation after that lockdown ends, alone in student accommodation, or risk spreading the virus. It is unclear what extra support will be given to help potentially thousands of students who may need to isolate at the same time. £12m for mental health support is not sufficient when thousands of students are already protesting the lack of provision.

‘The insistence on continuing with in-person teaching until 9 December is putting the health of the nation at risk by repeating the summer’s mass movement of students in just one week.

‘There is still no information about what universities should do next term, risking the possibility of a third wave of Covid. The government must support students to learn remotely next term and work with universities to help release any students who wish to remain at home from their accommodation contracts.’

Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Jenny Harries said:

“The mass movement of students across the country at the end of term presents a really significant challenge within the COVID-19 response. The measures announced today will help minimise that risk and help students get home to their families as safely as possible for Christmas. It is crucial that students follow the guidance in order to protect their families and the communities they return to.”  

Universities are expected to make plans to ensure students can travel home safely at the end of term, working with local public health officials and transport operators.    

Students should follow the Government’s travel guidance, which  includes wearing face coverings unless exempt, avoiding busy routes and times, and limiting car sharing with only their household or bubble where possible.       

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We are working with the other governments across the UK to ensure that all students, no matter where they live or study are treated fairly and can travel home as safely as possible to keep all our communities safe. 

English students at universities in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, should follow the guidance relevant to where they are living before returning home. When they return to England, they should follow their local guidance for their home area.  Students returning to their home in England who have not completed the 4 weeks of national restrictions should undertake at least 14 days of restricted contact either before or after return home to minimise their risk of transmission.  

Universities have also been asked to provide additional help and practical support to students, particularly for students who remain on campus over Christmas, which can include care leavers, international students and students estranged from their families. Universities should ensure they are properly cared for and can access affordable food, medical and cleaning supplies if needed.       

The Government has provided over £9 million to leading mental health charities to help them expand and reach those most in need, as well as working closely with the Office for Students to provide up to £3 million to fund Student Space, a new mental health support platform.       

The department also worked with the Office for Students to clarify that providers were able to use existing funds, worth around £23 million per month for April to July this year and £256 million for Academic Year 2020/21, towards hardship support.   

A Universities UK spokesperson said: 

“University students and staff will appreciate confirmation of the government’s end-of-term plans for English universities, given the prolonged uncertainty they have faced this year.

“With universities being asked to end in-person learning by 9 December, some students will now miss out on timetabled placements, practical classes and other in-person teaching near the end of term. Universities will need to work with students and government to manage the challenges this creates.

“The government must now urgently turn its attention to working with the sector on plans to ensure students can safely resume their studies in person in January, supported by enhanced testing capability.”

Larissa Kennedy 100x100Larissa Kennedy, NUS National President, said:

“The government have finally listened to our calls to ensure that students can travel home safely for Christmas. We had raised concerns about plans to make students self-isolate for extended periods of time, and the effect this would have on their mental health, so giving students some much needed clarity will hopefully put many at ease.

“We particularly welcome this mass-testing approach as it equips students with the knowledge to make informed decisions about travel ahead of the winter break based on individual risk, instead of being subject to blanket rules we’ve seen elsewhere this term. The government must now ensure that universities have enough resource to cope with the mass demand for this testing. We do now need a clear strategy for January return: students deserve better than another term of uncertainty.”

Tim Bradshaw 100x100Dr Tim Bradshaw, Chief Executive of the Russell Group, said:

“The Government confirming its position on the end of term is welcome, however a mandatory cut-off date for in-person teaching to deliver a ‘student travel window’ does create practical challenges for universities, which our members will now work hard to mitigate. 

“We call on Government to work with the sector to provide clear guidance on how it believes the return to campus in the New Year should be managed to ensure students face as little disruption as possible to their ongoing studies and professional qualification requirements.”

Staff need training and support to deliver mass testing to students, says UNISON senior national education officer Ruth Levin:  

“Students want to share Christmas with their families like the rest of us. Thankfully, the government has finally come up with a plan, but many questions remain unanswered.    

“University staff need clarity on who will deliver mass testing to undergraduates. Those who agree to be involved will need training and suitable safety kit.  

“The whole testing process must be risk-assessed and properly supervised if it’s to be effective. Many students will need repeat testing if their results are inconclusive. Sufficient funding must be in place for universities so this programme can be carried out safely.   

“The return of students in January will also be a major challenge. Ministers must release guidance as soon as possible to give universities the best chance to plan ahead.” 

Matt Smith, Director, UKI Public Sector, Citrix, says:

“Universities have already been facing a significant challenge this year to quickly adapt to a hybrid model of on-site and online lectures. Those that have established unified online environments – that can be activated on demand at short notice, while secure and easy to use for both students and staff – will be best-placed to deliver fully online teaching from the 9th December.

“However, our research earlier this year found that nearly half (46%) of UK university students were unable to take any remote classes prior to the pandemic. Following the first government-imposed lockdown, universities were rushed to completely overhaul their online provision – and for many, this is still a challenge today. Those that are able to do this successfully are likely to find that this sets them up for longer term success in attracting students, as 39% of university students would be open to a hybrid model of on-site and online lectures in the future.”

Commissioned by Citrix, One Poll surveyed 500 university students in the UK between July and August 2020. Key findings include:

  • 46% of UK university students reported that they were unable to take any remote classes prior to COVID-19, so the switch to online classes during lockdown marks a dramatic change for UK universities.
  • In the majority of cases, UK university students appear to have had a positive remote learning experience from a technology perspective, with 77% reporting they were able to easily access necessary information, apps and data remotely that are normally accessed at the university computer lab or university library.
  • While the largest share of those surveyed (45%) would prefer attending all classes on campus, 39% stated they would prefer a hybrid model of on-site and online lectures. A further 12% would like to adopt an entirely remote learning experience.
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