English universities despair as in-person teaching ruled out before 17 May

University leaders have expressed despair after the government announced that a full return to face-to face teaching for students in England has been ruled out before 17 May at the earliest.

They accused ministers of treating students like “second class citizens” and sacrificing them to protect other parts of the economy, in a move likely to fuel student demands for compensation.

One exasperated vice-chancellor said: “Governments must balance competing political, economic and social priorities. For this government, it seems that university students’ education is a low political priority.”

Earlier, reports claimed the delay had been fuelled by Treasury fears that students’ return to campus could lead to an increase in Covid infections and jeopardise the reopening of indoor hospitality, also due for 17 May. The Treasury denied the reports, saying decisions on which parts of economy to reopen are for the prime minister.

Vanessa Wilson, CEO of the University Alliance, which represents professional and technical universities, said: “We were told that the Cabinet Office is prioritising other sectors, in particular the hospitality sector. Frankly, we find this absurd given what you can do now versus there being no evidence that students returning to in-person teaching would create any risks. We’re all baffled. The hospitality sector is huge and they’re weighing that up against universities. It’s been strongly inferred as a weighing up of financial positions.”

The Department for Education, meanwhile, said the exact timing for a full return to face-to-face teaching was aligned with step 3 of the government’s roadmap out of lockdown and as such, would be subject to a review of Covid infection data beforehand.

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How England’s Covid lockdown is being lifted


Step 1, part 1

In effect from 8 March, all pupils and college students returned fully. Care home residents can receive one regular, named visitor. 

Step 1, part 2

In effect from 29 March, outdoor gatherings allowed of up to six people, or two households if this is larger, not just in parks but also gardens.
Outdoor sport for children and adults allowed.
The official stay at home order ends, but people will be encouraged to stay local.
People will still be asked to work from home where possible, with no overseas travel allowed beyond the current small number of exceptions.

Step 2

In effect from 12 April, non-essential retail, hair and nail salons, and some public buildings such as libraries and commercial art galleries can reopen. Most outdoor venues can open, including pubs and restaurants, but only for outdoor tables and beer gardens. Customers will have to be seated but there will be no need to have a meal with alcohol.

Also reopening are settings such as zoos and theme parks. However, social contact rules will still apply here, so no indoor mixing between households and limits on outdoor mixing.
Indoor leisure facilities such as gyms and pools can also open, but again people can only go alone or with their own household.
Reopening of holiday lets with no shared facilities is also allowed, but only for one household.
Funerals can have up to 30 attendees, while weddings, receptions and wakes can have 15.

Step 3

Again with the caveat “no earlier than 17 May”, depending on data, vaccination levels and current transmission rates.

Step 3 entails that most mixing rules are lifted outdoors, with a limit of 30 people meeting in parks or gardens.
Indoor mixing will be allowed, up to six people or, if it is more people, two households.
Indoor venues such as the inside of pubs and restaurants, hotels and B&Bs, play centres, cinemas and group exercise classes will reopen. The new indoor and outdoor mixing limits will remain for pubs and other hospitality venues.

For sport, indoor venues can have up to 1,000 spectators or half capacity, whichever is lower; outdoors the limit will be 4,000 people or half capacity, whichever is lower. Very large outdoor seated venues, such as big football stadiums, where crowds can be spread out, will have a limit of 10,000 people, or a quarter full, whichever is fewer.
Weddings will be allowed a limit of 30 people, with other events such as christenings and barmitzvahs also permitted.

This will be the earliest date at which international holidays could resume, subject to a separate review.

Step 4

No earlier than 21 June, all legal limits will be removed on mixing, and the last sectors to remain closed, such as nightclubs, will reopen. Large events can take place.

Peter Walker Political correspondent

In a written ministerial statement, the universities minister, Michelle Donelan, 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.” Office for National Statistics figures suggest that 75% of students are already at their term-time addresses.

Donelan added: “The government and I recognise just how difficult and disruptive the last year has been for students. However, the roadmap is designed to maintain a cautious approach to the easing of restrictions to ensure that we can maintain progress towards full reopening.”

University leaders said the impact on students could be devastating. Prof Julia Buckingham, president of Universities UK, said: “This is hugely disappointing news for all those students in England who have been learning online since December, and comes at a crucial time in the academic year when in-person support from tutors and friends is highly valued by students ahead of their end-of-year exams.”

Although some students on creative and practical courses are already receiving face-to-face teaching, the government’s announcement means about a million more will not receive any in-person tuition until 17 May at the earliest.

By that time most university teaching will be over, leaving students to face assessments after months working online. When they finally return, all students and staff will be encouraged to take three supervised Covid tests on campus, three to five days apart, to try to limit transmission, with further tests made available throughout the summer term.

There has been growing anger among students over the decision to delay their return. A parliamentary petition accusing the government of having “trivialised our education” and asking for all students to be permitted to go back to campus at the start of summer term has gained more than 6,000 signatures.

Many students voiced their dismay with the government on social media. One tweet from a recent graduate that was retweeted 65,000 times said: “The fact you can have 10,000 people in a stadium before you can have in-person lectures epitomises how poorly university students have been treated during the pandemic.”

Frustrated students may now seek to claim compensation through the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for a year that many feel has not lived up to promises. The regulator published example case studies in March that indicated it would offer students refunds, even where this is not required by law, and is developing proposals that would make it easier for large groups of students to make a single compensation claim.

Universities are said to be worried that high numbers of successful claims would threaten their financial stability.

Dr Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell group of universities, said the further delay was a big blow. “We urge the government to reconsider its decision to ensure these students are not forgotten and can resume in-person teaching as soon as possible.”

Prof Graham Galbraith, vice-chancellor at the University of Portsmouth, said: “In refusing to permit in-person teaching students are being treated like second class citizens. 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.”

The 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. In the face of unprecedented financial hardship, the government is offering students pitiful levels of support.”



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