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Ministers accused of ‘disrespectful’ attitude towards students after confirmation most will not return to English universities until 17 May

Kate Devlin
·3-min read
A survey has suggested 40 per cent of students have considered dropping out of university during the Covid pandemic (Getty Images)
A survey has suggested 40 per cent of students have considered dropping out of university during the Covid pandemic (Getty Images)

Ministers have been accused of a “disrespectful” attitude towards students after it was confirmed they will not return to university in England until 17 May at the earliest.

Face-to-face teaching will continue to be limited, raising questions about how many students will take up the offer so close to the end of term.

Professor Charlie Jeffery, vice chancellor of the University of York, described the timing of the announcement as “very late” and “disrespectful”.

“It makes it extraordinarily difficult for our students to know where they are going to be and what they are going to be doing.

“I find it actually rather disrespectful that students don’t have the certainty that other sectors of the economy, for example tattoo parlours do,” Prof Jeffery told the BBC.

The 17 May date will coincide with the further easing of restrictions on social contact indoors in England, as long as coronavirus case numbers continue to go in the right direction.

Most students in England were told not to return to campus as part of the nationwide lockdown announced in January.

Some on practical courses, which require specialist equipment and facilities, began to return to face-to-face teaching on 8 March.

In a written ministerial statement, universities minister Michelle Donelan warned the movement of students across the country still posed a possible transmission risk.

Once they do return, students will be asked to take three supervised Covid-19 tests, three to five days apart, at testing sites on campus.

Students will also have access to home testing kits for the rest of the term, the Department for Education said.

Ms Donelan said ministers recognised how difficult and disruptive the last year had 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 [mid-May] more of the population will be vaccinated, and there is also more time to increase testing to reduce risk further."

Professor Julia Buckingham, president of Universities UK, which represents vice-chancellors, recently described it as "illogical" to open gyms and shops on 12 April and not allow students to return to campus.

Dr Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group, said: “The government’s announcement today means that around 1 million university students will be unable to resume in-person teaching until at least mid-May. This includes students on courses such as business, law, maths, accounting and languages.

“Whilst we recognise the need for caution as lockdown measures are eased, the government’s decision today is a major blow. It fails to take into account the data which shows the safety of teaching spaces, and the very low infection rates at universities right now, despite the majority of students being on campus. We urge the government to reconsider its decision to ensure these students are not forgotten and can resume in-person teaching as soon as possible.”

A parliamentary petition calling for students to be allowed to return to university at the start of the summer term has also garnered more than 5,700 signatures.

Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, from the National Union of Students, 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.”

But the University and College Union has called for university courses to remain online until September.

The DfE has said it will make an additional £15m of funding available for student hardship this academic year.

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