Universities must remain closed to most students until at least mid-May, after ministers rejected calls from the sector to ease lockdown restrictions on campuses from next week in line with other parts of society.
The decision, shared with university leaders on Friday, came after a direct plea to prime minister Boris Johnson to allow extensive face-to-face teaching to resume from Monday at the same time as hairdressers, non-essential shops and public libraries reopen.
Some universities had hoped they would be able to welcome more students back to campus as England moved into its second phase of lockdown easing. Those studying practical subjects, such as medicine and art and design, have had limited access to laboratories and other essential teaching facilities since March 8.
Earlier this week, Universities UK wrote to Johnson asking why the sector was left out of prime minister’s announcement for the next phase of reopening, which will also allow pubs and restaurants to reopen and serve people in outdoor settings.
Julia Buckingham, president of UUK, wrote that it was “illogical” that students were not allowed to return to self-catered accommodation and resume classes in “Covid-safe university facilities” when gyms, parks, theme parks, and community centres were all allowed to open.
Two sources familiar with the discussions said ministers had told Friday’s meeting that wider easing of restrictions for universities would not be permitted until May 17 at the earliest, and that students should not return until that point. An official announcement is expected next week.
The government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
One sector leader said they were “dumbstruck” by the refusal to allow students to return until later in the term, which for many universities ends in June. “We’re really disappointed. We don’t understand the reasoning behind this decision”.
The delayed reopening will cause problems for many universities, which had planned to resume teaching sooner.
The University of Worcester, which begins a new term on Monday, this week advised students to return to campus if it was better for their mental health and wellbeing, in line with government guidance.
The university was planning to run Covid-safe catering and sports activities alongside essential practical courses. David Green, the vice-chancellor, said it was “ludicrous” students would not be able to access facilities such as libraries, despite comparable services being open for the general public.
“We’ve gone back to running our own affairs intelligently and we hope for permission from the government to allow us to do that,” he said. “In practice, students are starting to make their own decisions and we of course have a responsibility [to] make sure they can study effectively.”
Sector leaders believed ministers’ reluctance stemmed from a desire to avoid a repeat of the spike in cases that followed the “mass migration” of students back to universities last September.
But they argued those fears were unfounded. Several separate surveys, including by the Office for National Statistics, estimate that around three quarters of students are already living at their term-time addresses.
Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, president of the National Union of Students, on Wednesday called on the government for urgent clarity. “Students have missed out not just on huge swaths of education and hands on experience this year, but on huge parts of campus life, on top of now learning from cramped homes and bedrooms,” she said.
Paul Blomfield, Labour MP and chair of the all-party parliamentary group for students, said they felt “overlooked” after the government’s promise in February to review the return of those not on practical courses was followed by “radio silence”.
He added: “Students understand the need for caution, but not the absence of any information about their return to in-person teaching while other in-person services reopen.”