Dozens of universities ignore easing of Covid mask rules

·4-min read
Michelle Donelan - /Geoff Pugh for the Telegraph
Michelle Donelan - /Geoff Pugh for the Telegraph

Universities should not force students to wear masks as they have "sacrificed enough", a minister has said as eleven Russell Group institutions keep rules in place.

Michelle Donelan, the universities minister, joined the student watchdog in rebuking vice-chancellors who are still imposing curbs despite England’s last remaining restrictions being ditched.

Guidance from the Department for Education says that "face coverings are no longer advised for students, staff and visitors in teaching settings or communal areas".

But an analysis has found eleven of the 24 leading Russell Group universities - and a total of 51 universities across the country - are going beyond DfE guidance despite last month's rule relaxation.

Just 21 of the 117 universities surveyed had mask policies in line with the DfE, sparking fury from parents and students, while the others were unclear or out of date.

'A sign of respect, kindness and sensitivity'

The University of Bristol is still telling all staff and students they are "required to wear a face covering inside buildings on campus", including teaching spaces, corridors, libraries, reading rooms and study spaces, though residences are exempt. It describes masks as "a sign of respect, kindness, and sensitivity to each other".

Meanwhile, London School of Economics guidance says masks are still mandatory in lifts and for "students in all teaching rooms". UCL also "expects" masks in teaching areas, as does the University of Leeds when staff ask for them.

Oxford University’s guidance says: "Departments, as well as individual members of teaching staff, can continue to mandate face coverings in teaching and learning environments (unless individuals are exempt). Face coverings are strongly encouraged in libraries and should be worn when moving around university buildings."

Responding to the findings, Ms Donelan told The Telegraph: "I do not believe universities should be going beyond our guidance by imposing additional, mandatory, restrictions on students.

"Young people have already sacrificed enough during this pandemic and students should be able to enjoy the full university experience they deserve."

'It is right that students expect a much more normal university experience'

Lord Wharton, chairman of the Office for Students watchdog added: "There are no legal restrictions around mask wearing in higher education, and most universities are steadily returning to normal.

"It is right that students now expect a much more normal university experience, with in-person teaching and socialising, as well as the opportunity for prospective students to go to campuses to visit universities they are considering."

Imperial College London still encourages face coverings in teaching areas and whilst moving around in examinations but not when seated.

Others including King’s College London and the universities of Exeter, Durham, Manchester and York are urging or strongly urging, but not mandating, masks on parts of campus.

Some universities are still only holding virtual open days, and ask students and visitors to take lateral flow tests, despite free tests winding up.

'Stasi-like environment'

Arabella Skinner, of the parents group Us For Them UK which conducted the survey, warned of a "Stasi-like environment" where students police their maskless peers and said parents of sixth formers were avoiding such universities or taking gap years.

Jude D’Alesio, 21, a final-year Bristol law student, felt the university's mask mandate was "coming at the expense of student participation in seminars - not only is it far harder to hear other students' answers, but group work is far more constricted and less free-flowing when you cannot gauge people's reactions".

A Bristol University spokesman said its mask rule was "reviewed on a fortnightly basis and any changes will be made following careful consideration of the situation with expert advice from our scientists and partners".

A Russell Group spokesman said: "Universities make decisions on campus requirements at a local level, based on the interests of their staff and student communities.

"While face coverings are no longer required in the vast majority of settings, universities may continue to encourage their use in busy indoor areas, such as lifts or small crowded places, for personal protection as well as out of respect for others, in the same way as public transport providers and major retailers do."