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Remaining university students to return to campus no earlier than 17 May

Michelle Donelan, Minister of State for Universities

All university students who have not yet returned to campus and in-person teaching will be able to do so from 17 May, at the earliest, @MichelleDonelan has confirmed today (Tuesday 13 April).  

The timing aligns with Step 3 of the Government’s roadmap, where restrictions on social contact and indoor mixing will be further eased, and aims to limit potential public health risks associated with student populations moving across the country.

Progression to Step 3 of the roadmap will be dependent on a review of the latest data and the impact of Step 2 on the four key tests. New home testing kits provided to students to increase testing uptake and help limit virus transmission.

Creative and practical students started returning from the 8 March, with an estimated 49 per cent of students already eligible to return to in-person teaching, subject to decisions by their institutions, and remaining students have received online provision throughout the term.

Upon return, all students and staff are encouraged to take three supervised tests (3 to 5 days apart) at an asymptomatic testing site on campus, where this is available. 

After this, students will also have access to home testing kits throughout the summer term through both the Government’s offer of free rapid LFD tests twice weekly to everyone in England, and ‘University Collect’ services, under which universities will distribute tests from communal locations on campus, such as libraries. This is in addition to the onsite testing already offered.

All tests will be free, and all students and staff who test positive from an LFD test will need to self-isolate for 10 days, unless they receive a negative PCR test within two days.

The Government has made available an additional £15 million in hardship funding to support those students most in need, such as those struggling to pay accommodation costs due to the pandemic. International and postgraduate students will be eligible for this funding along with domestic undergraduates.

In a statement to parliment today, Michelle Donelan, Minister of State for Universities, said:

“The government recognises the disruption that COVID-19 has caused for many students and their families because they have not yet been able to return to their university. Last academic term we advised that all students on practical and creative courses could return to in-person teaching from 8 March and committed to reviewing further returns by the end of the Easter holidays.

“Today my department has announced that remaining students will be advised to return to in-person teaching alongside Step 3 of the Roadmap, when restrictions on social contact will be eased further and the majority of indoor settings can reopen. This will take place no earlier than 17 May, following a further review of the data against the four tests. As was announced in February, students and higher education providers will be given a week’s notice of any further easing of restrictions as it affects them in accordance with the timing of Step 3. Until then all students should continue to learn remotely and remain where they are living, wherever possible.

“Universities have a strong track record of delivering excellent remote learning, students in Higher Education are well equipped to study and meet their learning outcomes remotely. The government remains clear that that the quality and quantity of taught hours must be maintained and that all learning must be accessible.

“The government and I recognise just how difficult and disruptive the last year has been for students. However, the Roadmap is designed to maintain a cautious approach to the easing of restrictions, to ensure that we can maintain progress towards full reopening. By Step 3, more of the population will be vaccinated, and there is also more time to increase testing to reduce risk further.

“The movement of students across the country poses a risk for the transmission of the virus – particularly because of the higher prevalence and rates of transmission of new variants. Students who have returned to higher education settings should not move back and forward between their permanent home and student home during term time unless they meet one of the exemptions.

“Our advice remains that some students, such as those with inadequate study space and/or mental health and wellbeing issues, may need to return to their term-time address despite their teaching still being online. We have asked providers to consider opening facilities to support those who have returned to their term-time accommodation alongside those who have resumed in-person teaching and learning; this is to safeguard students’ wellbeing and to prevent isolation and mental ill health.

“We are supporting universities to provide regular, twice-weekly, asymptomatic testing for all students residing in their term-time accommodation, or accessing university facilities, and to all staff. In May 2021, we will be making home test kits available to universities to supply to their staff and students as appropriate. In addition, staff and students can make use of the universal testing offer by ordering home tests online or visiting a pharmacy. Students returning to university should undertake three supervised tests at an on-site test facility. They should then test twice a week, either using home test kits or at an on-site facility. This is in line with the expectation in most other education settings and will help break chains of transmission of the virus. We strongly encourage all universities to ensure that all students and staff get tested regularly and report their result when testing at home.

“I realise that a delay to a return to university may cause some students to face additional costs. With this in mind, I have now announced that we will be making a further £15m of funding available for student hardship this academic year. This is in addition to the £70m of funding already distributed in the previous financial year. As with the £70m, international and postgraduate students will be eligible for this funding along with domestic undergraduates. We will work with the Office for Students to allocate these funds and will set out the details of this shortly.

“I recognise that these unprecedented circumstances are also affecting student and staff mental health and wellbeing, and I am committed to addressing these concerns. The Mental Health in Education Action Group, which I convened with the Minister for Children and Families, Vicky Ford, will continue to prioritise the mental health and wellbeing of students and staff, alongside the HE Taskforce Mental Health and “Wellbeing subgroup. We have continued to ask universities to prioritise mental health support and have worked with the Office for Students to provide Student Space, which is a mental health and wellbeing platform designed to work alongside existing services, to support students throughout the pandemic. I have asked the OfS to look at extending the platform and I am delighted they have done so for the 2020/21 academic year. This resource, which is funded by the OfS, provides dedicated one-to-one phone, text and web chat facilities as well as a collaborative online platform. In addition to this, the Office for Students has recently published its consultation on the distribution of the £15m for student mental health support in the coming academic year, focusing on supporting transitions to university.

“We are continuing to explore other ways to provide further support for students and particularly appreciate how vital it is that we support graduates and new students as they move into their next stage. We are working in parallel with Universities UK, the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services, the Institute of Student Employers, the Office for Students, and the wider sector to understand what we can do to complement their planned support. We know that providers are best placed to lead on this and have assured them that we will work with them to signpost students to useful resources, share good practice, and communicate effectively with schools, colleges, and employers.

“More broadly, the Government is doing all it can to help people who are at the start of their career journey. The Department for Work and Pensions has successfully recruited over 13,500 new work coaches as of the end of March 2021. This will ensure that high-quality work search support is available to those who need it. We are also investing additional funding in the National Careers Service up to March 2022. This investment will support delivery of individual careers advice for those whose jobs/learning have been affected by the pandemic (by end of FY21/22). We have also added additional courses to the Skills Toolkit to develop ‘work readiness’ skills that employers report they value in their new recruits.

“I want to assure all students, staff and parents that student welfare continues to be a priority and I will continue to work closely with the sector to ensure that our additional hardship funding and our transition support reaches those who need it most. As always, I want to thank students for their resilience and university staff and student unions for their determination to ensure that students are supported at this challenging time.”

Matt Western MP, Labour’s Shadow Universities Minister, responding to the Government’s announcement that student return to campus will be no earlier than 17 May, said:

“The Government has treated children and young people as an afterthought throughout this pandemic, and students have been left without information or support. Just a week before thousands were hoping to return to campus, they have been let down with yet another late announcement and no explanation of the reasons for this delay.

“In the face of unprecedented financial hardship, the Government is offering students pitiful levels of support which trail far behind the Welsh Labour Government, combined with limited careers advice which will leave students without the tailored support needed to transition into a challenging jobs market. 

“Students must not pay the price for the Government’s incompetent response to this pandemic.”

NUS responds to government announcement of return to campus from 17 May 

Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, VP Higher Education said;

“We are pleased that the government has finally remembered that students exist and started to fill the information vacuum of its own making. Our priority has always been that students and staff go back to a safe campus, and this be led by scientific advice, but the silence has been galling.

While incredibly late in the day today’s announcement will at least allow students to make necessary arrangements to access their learning and accommodation. However, after almost a year’s worth of disruption, there is still much to be done to ensure students receive adequate support to succeed in the time that is left of this academic year. We hear from students at risk of not progressing due to missing out on the practical elements of their course or their placements, of those whose mental health has significantly deteriorated as a result of constant upheaval, and we know that almost a quarter are financially on the brink as a result of paying out rent for accommodation they the government then told them not to live in. We need assurances that the Minister will work with universities, professional bodies, and intervene in the predatory practices of landlords and accommodation providers to provide some urgently needed relief for students.

We welcome a further £15 million unlocked for student hardship but the student finance system is fundamentally broken. With students struggling to afford rent, food and basic necessities – and with these problems existing long before the pandemic – we cannot keep adding sticking plasters every few months. We need non-repayable maintenance grants back on the table, at the level of student living income, to stop students being priced out of education.

Students have missed out not just on huge swathes of education and hands-on experience this year, but on experiencing campus life. Having experienced so much injustice, students deserve better than being disregarded by the government time and time again.”

Universities UK response to government statement on delay to student returns 

On the confirmation that no further students can return for in-person activities until at least 17 May 2021, Professor Julia Buckingham, President, Universities UK said:

“This is hugely disappointing news for all those students in England who have been learning online since December, and comes at a crucial time in the academic year when in-person support from tutors and friends is highly valued by students ahead of their end-of-year exams.

“We know that many are desperate to return to use facilities and take part in covid-safe in-person teaching, learning and other activities – which the government has previously recognised as essential to their mental health and wellbeing.

“Universities have proven that the safety measures put in place – including regular asymptomatic testing, additional cleaning, support for self-isolating students and adherence to guidance on ventilation and face coverings – are enabling effective management of the virus on campuses, with minimal infection rates in face-to-face teaching settings and limited onward transmission to local communities.

“With schools, colleges and many businesses open, we now need the government to urgently explain how it reached this decision so that universities can communicate with their students and continue preparing to maximise opportunities for in-person activities from 17 May.”

Universities in England will shortly be in touch with students with specific information on how the latest government guidance will affect them.

UUK estimates that as many as 50% of the 2.1 million higher education students in England are still being taught fully online, either in their normal term-time accommodation or at home, with no access to university-provided in-person learning, activities, or support. 

Universities have been working hard to prepare for the summer term for all students with plans including blended teaching and learning, opportunities to use library, computing and studio spaces, on-campus sport, graduate support bootcamps, and creative use of outdoor space – in accordance with government guidance – to encourage group work and social interaction.  

Term dates will vary, and so individual students should wait to hear more from their university, but UUK’s work looking at plans for the summer term suggests that the majority of universities have plans for programmes, activities and extended opening of some facilities which will be available and of benefit to students.

Recent data published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) revealed that almost two-thirds of students have experienced a decline in their mental health this academic year, and that students’ life satisfaction during the pandemic remains far below the national adult average. Universities UK has called for targeted government support for student mental health. 

Universities continue to make significant investments in student and staff safety including updated risk assessments, Covid-secure measures, enhanced testing, and lessons learned from the autumn.

Measures include: 

  • adherence to mandatory social distancing 
  • continuation of blended learning even upon return (lectures remain online, in-person activities minimised, numbers using facilities such as libraries are controlled) 
  • reduced numbers on campus and using facilities 
  • increased hygiene measures across the university estate – teaching and learning spaces and in accommodation including enhanced cleaning and sanitisation stations 
  • assessment of adequate ventilation in accordance with guidance 
  • mandatory face coverings in all indoor public spaces in accordance with guidance 
  •  regular review of risk assessments and a risk-based approach. 

Previous data published by the ONS shows that infection rates of higher education teaching professionals are low compared to people working in other education settings. This follows prior research which revealed there is minimal evidence of Covid-19 transmission in face-to-face learning environments at universities, such as classrooms. 

A recent Sutton Trust report on Covid-19 and the university experience showed that participation in extra-curricular activities this academic year is substantially down on normal. 39% of students reported taking part in student societies or sport in the autumn term, and this has fallen further since Christmas to just 30%. Almost half (47%) of students reported taking part in no wider enrichment activities at all this term, and they are also less likely to have taken part in work experience, paid work, or study abroad opportunities. 

Universities have prepared a variety of additional activities designed to support final year undergraduates and postgraduate taught students who are graduating this year, including: 

  • Volunteering projects with local charities and schools 
  • On-campus and online employer-led events 
  • In-person self-development events, and one-to-one drop in appointments 
  • Intensive summer programmes to enable students on practical and practice-based subjects to spend more hours using specialist equipment and facilities 

Buckinghamshire New University’s Professor Nick Braisby urges UK Government to allow all students to return to University 

The Vice-Chancellor of Buckinghamshire New University (@BucksNewUni), Professor Nick Braisby, has criticised the UK Government for leaving thousands of students in limbo following the latest roadmap announcement, and was last week (8 Apr) calling for all students to be allowed to return in line with the relaxation of restrictions on 12 April.

On Monday (5 Apr), the Prime Minister Boris Johnson gave the green light for stage two of his Government’s roadmap to begin from 12 April which will see various sectors reopen, including all shops, hairdressers, gyms, spas, and theme parks. Self-catering accommodation will also be allowed to reopen, however, there was no mention of when university students could resume their studies in COVID-safe university facilities.

Vice-Chancellor of Buckinghamshire New University, Professor Nick Braisby said:

“I am incredibly proud of the patience and perseverance of our University’s students, whose studies and lives have now been disrupted for more than a year.

“Since the start of the pandemic, University students have suffered considerable disruption, with a change to online learning, reduced employment opportunities, and restrictions on movement. We have seen increased levels of financial hardship and rising concern around mental health. At a critical time in the academic year, they are now being forgotten and left in limbo with no return date in sight.

“This vital issue of students returning to university has been kicked into the long grass seemingly without any consideration of the ongoing negative impact this is having on their studies and mental health. I strongly urge the UK Government to allow all students to return from 12 April and make this announcement as soon as possible.”

Professor Braisby has written to local MPs Steve Baker (High Wycombe), Rob Butler (Aylesbury) and Prime Minister Boris Johnson (Uxbridge), who he has asked to urgently reconsider the Government’s position.

Professor Braisby’s intervention follows a letter sent by Universities UK (UUK) to the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, requesting clear and urgent clarification on the UK Government’s plans for student returns and what further steps will be taken to support students’ education and wellbeing.

Significantly, the letter signed by UUK’s President, Professor Julia Buckingham, and Chief Executive, Alistair Jarvis, also called on the Government to explain what measures it will take to support student hardship arising from the pandemic, support final-year students’ employability, and support student mental health.

New data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) revealed that more than one in four students (29%) are struggling with loneliness, compared to 7% of the adult population in Great Britain. Student life satisfaction (5.2) also remains significantly lower than the average adult population (6.8).

Buckinghamshire New University continues to do everything it can to support its students and has so far: offered halls of residence rent rebates to students who have been unable to return to campus; launched several financial support packages, including an emergency allowance, everyday living allowance, and learning technology grant; and provided access to online 24/7 mental health support in addition to face-to-face wellbeing services on its campuses. The University has also extended its ‘no detriment’ policy until the end of the 2020/21 academic year and made free twice-weekly COVID-19 testing available.

When can students go back to University? Universities demand answers from government on student returns 

Universities UK (UUK) has written (7 Apr) to @BorisJohnson seeking an explanation for the lack of an announcement on student returns in England in Monday’s (5 Apr) Covid-19 press briefing.  

Universities and up to a million students were eagerly awaiting the government’s latest roadmap announcement, in anticipation that they would be able to return to safe, socially-distanced in-person teaching and learning from 12 April.  

Instead, they have been met with a communications vacuum.  

Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, NUS Vice President for Higher Education, said:

“Students need clarity about when they can expect to be back on campus, to allow them to make necessary arrangements for their learning and accommodation. Students deserve better to be ignored, yet again, by this government.

“We believe that students should be back on campus when it is safe to do so and would like this to be grounded in scientific advice. Students have missed out not just on huge swathes of education and hands-on experience this year, but on huge parts of campus life, on top of now learning from cramped homes and bedrooms.

“By the Prime Minister’s own admission education is a priority – with so many other sectors having been given clarity by now,  it is unforgivable that higher education continues to be left in the dark about plans for the new term. This is needlessly causing distress, with students consistently treated as low priority leaving them vulnerable and deepening the mental health crisis. We understand a return to campuses may need to be done cautiously, but this is no excuse for ignoring the matter entirely.  Where restrictions remain it is vital that access is prioritised for those who need it most, whether this is because their course cannot be delivered remotely or because their learning and living environment is unsuitable”

In a letter to the Prime Minister, Professor Julia Buckingham CBE, President, Universities UK said:

“The list of sectors which are allowed to operate in-person activities in England from 12 April is extensive – all shops, personal care businesses, gyms, spas, zoos, theme parks, public libraries and community centres – and restrictions will be lifted enabling people to travel anywhere in England for a self-catering holiday.  

“It therefore seems illogical that students are not allowed to return to their self-catering accommodation and resume their studies in Covid-safe university facilities, particularly at this crucial time of the academic year. This is another blow for those students who have been studying online since early December, and you will be aware of many studies highlighting the impact on students’ mental health, wellbeing and development.” 

A Department for Education spokesperson said:

“This has been a difficult time for students, and we are committed to getting all students back into university as soon as the public health situation allows.

“Students on practical and creative courses started returning from the 8th of March, and we will be reviewing options for the timing of the return of all remaining students by the end of the Easter holidays. 

“All universities are now able to offer twice weekly testing for students and staff who are on campus, to help identify asymptomatic cases and reduce transmission.

“We have been clear that universities must provide additional help and practical support to students who are isolating to ensure they are properly cared for and can access food, medical and cleaning supplies if needed. Student accommodation and support services will be a vital resource if any student has to isolate, and for students generally during this difficult period.

“Universities UK has published a checklist to guide universities that are supporting students who are self-isolating. This builds on previous guidance published to reaffirm and clarify the actions universities should consider to best support students’ physical, mental and emotional wellbeing.

“The Universities Minister has convened a working group of representatives from the higher education and health sectors to specifically address metal health, and has urged vice chancellors to prioritise providing adequate, accessible wellbeing support.

“Students struggling with their mental health can find support from Public Health England’s Every Mind Matters campaign, and their local NHS trust, which now provide dedicated, 24 hour support lines, including suicide prevention support.

“Universities can also access up to £256 million funding to use towards mental health support in 2020/21 and we have worked closely with the Office for Students, providing up to £3 million to fund Student Space, which provides additional support outside of university and NHS services.

“We have also asked the OfS to allocate an additional £15 million towards student mental health, through proposed reforms to Teaching grant funding.”

UUK had previously made an evidence-based case to the government on the benefits of a 12 April return for students’ mental health and wellbeing, as well as the wide-ranging Covid safety measures in place on campuses that have successfully minimised virus transmission this year. 

UUK is now asking the government to publish the evidence behind its decision-making, and explain what steps they will take to support the mental health and wider prospects of every student still awaiting news on when they will see a return to in-person activities.  

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