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Universities fear students won't be allowed back onto campus until May
26 March 2021, 09:34
University leaders have called for students to be allowed to return to campus amid fears they may not be back until mid-May at the earliest.
They argue that students' mental health and development would benefit by coming back and the Government has been warned not to take their "resilience for granted".
A year of social distancing has seen the university experience overhauled as institutions moved to remote learning - while some students ended up having to quarantine in their halls during Covid outbreaks.
But some in the higher education sector fears all students may not be allowed back until May 17.
However, the University and College Union has warned now is not the time to bring back students and to do so would risk the safety of staff, students and the public.
Those on critical courses or subjects that require specialist equipment and facilities have returned, while the rest continue to learn from home – despite the "majority" being in term-time accommodation.
The Government has said it will review whether all student can take part in face-to-face lessons by the end of the Easter holidays.
Professor Julia Buckingham, president of Universities UK, which represents vice-chancellors, said their return from April 12 had "clear benefits".
"University students have been extremely tolerant in the face of huge disruption and a radically different experience this year, and have willingly made sacrifices in the interests of public safety," she said.
"But the Government must not take their resilience for granted.
"Universities are fully prepared and looking forward to welcoming students back to Covid-secure environments as soon as possible after Easter, with a variety of enriching activities on offer including in-person teaching, access to study spaces, studios and sports facilities, alongside additional support and catch-up programmes for those due to graduate this year."
She said that universities had proven safety measures on campus, including testing and face coverings, were working.
Dr Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group, which represents the most selective universities in the UK, said there were "very low overall infection rates on campus despite the majority of students now being back in their term-time accommodation".
"We are particularly concerned about the impact on student mental health and that some students may not be able to take part in extra activities universities have planned for the rest of the year that would aim to boost employability, consolidate learning and help build networks that could be vital for their future success," he said.
A Department for Education spokesperson acknowledged the pandemic had been "difficult" for students and was committed to getting them back "as soon as the public health situation allows".
"Decisions will take into account the need to protect progress across the wider road map out of the pandemic, including the spread of the virus in communities and pressures on the NHS," they added.
However, Dr Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union, said the drive to bring students back "smacks of self-interest".
She said: "Universities should not now be asking hundreds of thousands of students to return for in-person teaching after Easter when most courses will only have revision classes and exams left.
"It will be much safer to remain online until the start of the next academic year when many more people will have been vaccinated."