'Mass student exodus' from campuses expected ahead of national lockdown

4 November 2020, 16:59 | Updated: 4 November 2020, 17:52

Universities are under pressure to keep face-to-face teaching
Universities are under pressure to keep face-to-face teaching. Picture: PA

By Ewan Somerville

A mass exodus of students from university campuses in England is likely ahead of the second national lockdown coming into force, union leaders have warned.

The National Union of Students (NUS) said many students were desperate to reunite with their families, to save the prospect of being confined to residences for four weeks without any of the usual perks of campus life.

Universities minister Michelle Donelan has urged students not to “rush home” to avoid spreading Covid-19 to hometowns and infecting relatives.

Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, vice president for higher education at the NUS, said: “Students being expected to stay in term-time accommodation for lockdown while everyone else is allowed to continue moving house is not only grossly unfair, it’s fanciful as in reality students will want to spend lockdown where they feel safest and most comfortable.

“Regardless of what universities say, it feels as if there’s a mass exodus from campuses across the country at the moment.”

Students have spent much of term so far locked up in self-isolation
Students have spent much of term so far locked up in self-isolation. Picture: PA

Guidance from the Department for Education (DfE) urges universities to keep face-to-face teaching on to boost students’ mental health, and says libraries should remain open during the November lockdown.

But the NUS and the University and College Union (UCU) have issued a joint demand for all university teaching to move online as much as possible to reduce the risk on the health and safety of the country.

Jo Grady, UCU general secretary, said: “Some universities have already moved the vast majority of their teaching online since the national lockdown was announced; instead of issuing contradictory advice we now need ministers to step in and tell the rest to follow suit.”

University leaders have warned of students becoming disenchanted with “Zoom degrees” and warn dropout rates could soar if there is no in-person provision to keep them on campus.

It comes as Cambridge University students were told they would not be able to graduate if they leave their term-time residences during the lockdown.

Cambridge students have been warned their degree is on the line if they go home
Cambridge students have been warned their degree is on the line if they go home. Picture: PA

Several college principals have written to students warning they would be breaching the institution’s long-standing statutes which require them to live within the university’s “precincts” during term time, according to The Telegraph. These are defined as within three miles of Great St. Mary’s Church for undergraduates and within a 10-mile radius for graduates.

The higher education watchdog the Office for Students (OfS) has written to universities and colleges to ensure they keep students informed on any plans to change how their courses will be taught. Some institutions are not communicating clearly enough with their students, the regulator said.

Archaeology lecturer at University of Leicester, Dr Rachel Crellin, tweeted: “I've just taught: some students have been told to come home by their parents, some worried about being trapped alone in accommodation, others who don't want to take Covid home to vulnerable family and some who don't want to go home.

”This is causing chaos.“

A survey from the Wonkhe website suggests that 26% of students are not satisfied with their academic experience this term.

The poll, of more than 7,000 students at 121 institutions, suggests that nearly 13% of students are considering leaving their course.

Meanwhile, uncertainty reigns over how students’ entry and exit from the Christmas holidays will be managed, with the Government’s scientific advisers warning it is “highly likely” to spark wider outbreaks.

A Government spokesperson said: “We are prioritising students’ education and wellbeing by keeping universities open.

“The Government has updated its guidance setting out that students should stay in their current accommodation.

“Universities should work with their local health teams to agree the balance of online and in-person teaching, adapting measures to their local circumstances.”