Universities say all students could return to in-person teaching after Easter

24 February 2021, 09:07 | Updated: 24 February 2021, 09:12

In Belgium students graduated wearing masks in October and there is now hope UK students could do the same this summer. File image.
In Belgium students graduated wearing masks in October and there is now hope UK students could do the same this summer. File image. Picture: PA

By Joe Cook

Universities say they are hoping to offer face-to-face teaching after Easter and could even hold graduation ceremonies, as one vice-chancellor revealed almost half of their students have already returned to campus.

Professor Adam Tickell, vice-chancellor of the University of Sussex, said he is hoping to bring students back in the summer term and offer them a "meaningful package" of on-campus learning and activities when they return.

This could include “small school-based or subject-based graduations”, if Boris Johnson’s target for removing almost all restrictions by 21 June is met.

Unlike almost all other sectors, universities have not been given an indicative reopening date by the government.

On Monday, the prime minister announced that a review will be held during the Easter holidays to decide on options for students’ return, although those studying practical courses can return for in-person teaching from 8 March.

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A number of universities, including the London School of Economics, St Andrews and University College London have already announced almost all lessons will be held virtually for the rest of the year.

Most students were told not to return after Christmas unless they needed additional mental health support or lacked appropriate study spaces.

However, an Office for National Statistics survey, found that 40% of the students who chose to leave campus for the Christmas break had already returned to their university accommodation in January.

A spokesman for the Russell Group, which represents the most selective institutions in the UK, said they estimate more than half of all students are currently living at their term-time address across their universities.

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Many students were forced to self-isolate after Covid ripped through many accommodation blocks in September and October.
Many students were forced to self-isolate after Covid ripped through many accommodation blocks in September and October. Picture: PA

On Tuesday, Universities Minister Michelle Donelan told LBC the government wants to get all students "back as quickly as possible".

However, she continued: "It is much more focused on data than it is on dates. We're eager to get them back as soon as we can but it has got to be done in a safe and measured way."

Those returning to face-to-face teaching on 8 March make up around 40 percent of all students, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson told Sky News.

"I equally recognise that there's many more students that are not covered in that so that's why as part of the next stage there is a review about when we can bring students back into university at the earliest possible moment. This is the right time to do so," he added.

Many students have called for refunds from the government and universities due to a lack of face-to-face teaching.
Demands for refunds have grown due to a lack of face-to-face teaching. Picture: PA

Speaking at a webinar, hosted by the Higher Education Policy Institute think tank, Prof Tickell said around 2,000 of Sussex students had returned to the university's accommodation out of approximately 4,500 students.

"I do hope that we're able to have students back both in terms of practical classes from March 8, which will be allowed in England, but also from after Easter,” he said.

"But that won't be known until really quite late in the day and there's relatively little teaching that happens after Easter so we're working on whether we can have a meaningful package for students when they come back.

“It's really tricky but we know that students have already returned to their campuses and their university towns, even though they've been advised by the Government not to, so because of that we would like them to be able to engage in learning and in other activities on our campus."

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When asked whether in-person graduations could be on the cards amid the government's plans to remove all restrictions on June 21, the Sussex vice-chancellor added: "We may have small school-based or subject-based graduations.

"I don't think we're going to be in a position where we can have large graduation ceremonies because I don't think it will be safe enough to do that.

"We want to have meaningful engagement for students, but we're going to have to work out what goes on as we go along."

A spokesperson for Universities UK, which represents most higher education providers, said: "Decisions about more students returning to university in England will be based on the latest public health situation, but the government supports our view that face-to-face teaching is important for the mental, emotional and educational wellbeing of students."

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