Most students in England will not be allowed to return to university campuses for face-to-face teaching until at least 17 May, the Government has announced.
The Government has described the timing as a “cautious approach to the easing of restrictions”, though the decision has been criticised by many of those in higher education.
Since the start of the year, the vast majority of higher education students have only had online teaching, with only students on a small number of practical courses allowed in-person teaching.
Students in England can now visit pubs, gyms and retail outlets, among other venues and meet with others in groups of six, though they cannot sit in a seminar room for face-to-face teaching. When face-to-face teaching is allowed to resume in May, most universities will have concluded their teaching for the year.
In recent weeks, university leaders had been calling on the government to allow students to return in April.
Universities UK has described it as ‘hugely disappointing’ that students will have to wait another month before returning to blended learning. Since the announcement, some students and university staff have also taken to social media to describe the decision as unfair and to complain about students being ‘forgotten’.
Lecturers’ union UCU, which opposed an earlier return for students, has said that the May return date ‘makes absolutely no sense’ as most teaching will have already finished by that date.
Despite the lack of face-to-face teaching, many students have been residing in term-time accommodation, aiming to salvage some form of a university experience. With students now being told they will not have teaching on campus until May (or likely until the Autumn in practice), further questions are likely to be raised over whether students should receive refunds or discounts for their tuition fees.
Responding to the Government’s announcement, Matt Western MP, Labour’s Shadow Universities Minister 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 Wales, the Welsh Government has already allowed students to return to a mix of face-to-face and online learning, though most students are continuing to learn online for now in the other UK nations.