Covid: 'Unfathomable' why students can't return to in-person teaching before May 17, university boss says

Students at Birley Halls student accommodation at Manchester Metropolitan University. Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

A decision not to allow students back into lectures before mid-May is "unfathomable", a leading university chief has said.

The Department for Education said it expects all remaining students to be able to return to campus when further easing of restrictions on social contact indoors in confirmed, which is no earlier than May 17.

Labour said students had been "let down" by the ruling, and had been "treated as an afterthought throughout this pandemic".

The next stage of England's road map will depend on a review of data and the impact of other restrictions being eased this month.

University chiefs are calling on the government to explain the science behind their decision, adding that campuses across England have been made Covid secure.

Most students in England – apart from those on critical courses – were told not to return to campus as part of the lockdown announced in January.

University students on practical courses, who require specialist equipment and facilities, began returning to face-to-face teaching on March 8.

It is estimated that around half of university students in England are currently not eligible to return to in-person teaching.

In a written ministerial statement, universities minister Michelle Donelan said all remaining students will be advised not to return to face-to-face lessons on campus until mid-May at the earliest.

She said: “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.”

Professor Graham Galbraith, vice-chancellor at the University of Portsmouth, said delaying the return of all students until May 17 was “unfathomable”.

Students have had their in-person teaching time curtailed by coronavirus. Credit: PA

He added: “That this date is after many universities will have finished their teaching year shows a Government with a cavalier disregard for details. This isn’t good enough.

“Students can now buy a book on British history in Waterstones and discuss it with a tattoo artist while they have their body decorated, but they cannot do the same thing in a Covid-secure environment with their university lecturer.”

Labour’s shadow universities minister Matt Western 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.”

Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, vice president for higher education at the National Union of Students, said: “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.”

Students will not return to in-person university teaching until May 17, the government has ruled. Credit: PA

University and College Union (UCU) general secretary Jo Grady said: ‘The UK government has consistently disregarded the needs of university staff and students throughout this pandemic, treating them as an afterthought at best.

“So unfortunately, it is no surprise that it has only confirmed university learning will remain online the day after many students have already started their summer term.

“Ministers now need to be honest with staff and students and confirm most courses will stay online until September, which is what UCU has been calling for.

“Restarting in-person activities in mid-May makes absolutely no sense, as many students’ exams will already have finished.”

On returning, all students and staff are encouraged to take three supervised tests – three to five days apart – at an asymptomatic testing site on campus.

After this, students will also have access to home testing kits throughout the summer term, the Government said.