Row erupts after Government warns students against returning home pre-lockdown

3 November 2020, 14:16

A row has erupted between students and the Government over new lockdown rules
A row has erupted between students and the Government over new lockdown rules. Picture: PA Images
Ewan Quayle

By Ewan Quayle

A row has erupted between the Government and student groups after ministers warned them against returning home before lockdown begins on Thursday.

In a letter to students ahead of new restrictions, Universities Minister Michelle Donelan issued a warning to "stay where you are" until Christmas break "in order to save lives" and prevent the further spread of Covid-19.

She said: "I know and appreciate that a number of you may want to be back with your family during this difficult time, but I urge you to stay where you are in order to save lives."

But the National Union of Students (NUS) has labelled the demands "unjust" and warned the rules could be "damaging" to students' mental health.

Read more: Covid-related deaths rise by 46 percent in a week in England and Wales

Read more: Oxford scientist says Government used 'incorrect graph to justify lockdown'

The group is calling for more "credible options" to be put on the table - including letting students leave their halls, releasing them from rental contracts, or allowing them to leave their course altogether.

Vice President for Higher Education Hillary Gyebi-Ababio blasted the Government over the rule changes, adding that "for too many months students have been at the whim of ever-changing guidance" and said it was "fundamentally unfair" to ask them to follow stricter rules than the rest of the public.

"With news of a national lockdown, some students will understandably want to reform households with family and be around loved ones," she added.

"With current guidance allowing people to move homes and form new households until Thursday it is unjust that the Government calls on students to stay put."

The Department for Education (DfE) has yet to publish more detailed official guidance on what universities and students should do during the second lockdown.

In a separate letter to vice-chancellors, Ms Donelan called on institutions not to switch students to online lessons during lockdown as it could "risk their mental health".

Read more: Hope at Last: Liverpool first city to get rapid response tests

Read more: Government plans to return to Covid Tier system after December 2, PM says

The Minister said she wants all students to have "some form of face-to-face learning" where possible, as they had not seen evidence of increased transmission within teaching environments on university campuses.

Ms Donelan added: "We expect you to continue to make informed decisions with your local public health teams on the level of face-to-face teaching and learning to provide, based on appropriate risk assessments and the needs of students and staff.

"We do not, however, want or expect to see a transition to full online learning during the new national restrictions - this could jeopardise the learning that students receive, as well as risk their mental health and wellbeing."

It follows calls since August from the University and College Union (UCU) to move all non-essential activities online.

The union claims they have collated over 35,000 Covid-19 cases on campuses across the UK since students returned in September and has launched a legal challenge against the Government in an attempt to force online-only lectures.

UCU General Secretary Jo Grady said: "Following updated guidance from the Westminster Government, we are calling on vice-chancellors in England to exercise their autonomy and move all non-essential activities online now.

"Universities must not risk the health and safety of staff and students by allowing non-essential in-person activities to continue.

"Reducing the amount of in-person teaching and travel to and from campus will minimise the spread of Covid-19 and keep people as safe as possible."

Read more: Sir Keir Starmer accuses No10 of 'catalogue of mistakes' that cost lives and livelihoods

Read more: Boris Johnson faces major Tory rebellion over 'disastrous' England lockdown

Universities UK (UUK), the body representing universities, spokeswoman responded to the new guidance: "As the universities minister has made clear in her letters to vice-chancellors and to students, students should remain at university and teaching, learning and student support should continue.

"Universities and Government recognise the importance of face-to-face teaching and learning activities in Covid-secure facilities for students' education, mental health and wellbeing. This will include libraries and learning spaces remaining open.

"Universities are awaiting fuller guidance from the Department for Education to allow them to advise staff and students further."