The climbdown comes just five days after Downing Street floated the idea of demanding proof of vaccination or a negative test to allow access to lecture rooms and halls of residence when autumn term begins in September.
The proposal sparked an angry backlash among Conservative MPs, with as many as 50 believed to be considering rebelling against legislation on mandatory certification for venues such as nightclubs and conference centres – and with some threatening to boycott the party’s annual conference in Manchester if they are forced to show Covid passes.
Government sources today said there are now “no plans” for mandatory passes for students, and that universities will instead be asked to encourage them to get their jabs.
Boris Johnson is thought to have suggested the plan himself, after reportedly “raging” in a Zoom meeting with ministers over the low take-up rates of vaccines among young people.
But the scheme met pushback from ministers who warned the government could face a legal challenge if it was seen to attempt to deny young people access to education after universities have entered a contractual obligation to provide it.
MPs warned the idea was potentially discriminatory, and Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey called for a recall of parliament to debate what he said was the introduction of ID cards by stealth.
The rapid backtrack from the proposal will fuel suspicions that it was always intended as part of a series of efforts to nudge young people into taking up the jab, rather than a practical policy plan.
It is understood that pop-up rapid testing centres are to be installed on campuses before term begins this September, and students may be encouraged to take tests twice weekly.
A government spokesperson said: “Vaccinations are important in helping to keep higher education settings safe for when students return in the autumn term and we strongly encourage all students to take up the offer of both vaccine doses.
“The government currently has no plans to require the use of the NHS Covid Pass for access to learning. However universities and FE colleges are encouraged to promote the offer of the vaccine and should continue to conduct risk assessments for their particular circumstances.”
While plans were never formally floated, No 10 said on Monday that the government was “looking at the scope for vaccine certification” in universities, and education minister Vicky Ford said ministers wanted to “look at every practicality to make sure that we can get students back safely and make sure that we can continue to prioritise education”.
But the deputy chairman of the Covid Recovery Group of Tories, Steve Baker, said it was an “outrageous proposal” that would risk “splitting the Tory Party irretrievably”.
Sir Ed Davey described the ditching of the scheme as another instance of “shambolic” messaging by the Johnson administration.
“This government is all stick and no carrot when it comes to young people,” said the Lib Dem leader.
“Too many young people have been left out of education, let down on the climate, and now stand to lose out on a night out clubbing thanks to Boris Johnson.
“Instead of the usual bungs to ministers’ buddies, it is time this government incentivised young people to get the jabs. From role models, to better information, to learning from President Biden’s initiatives - it’s time for this government to stop taking young people for granted.”
Conservative MP Damian Collins said those who had chosen not to get vaccinated could not expect “to be treated in the same way” as those who had.
“We don’t force anyone to have a vaccine in this country, it is up to their individual choice,” said the Folkestone and Hythe MP.
“But, at the same time, it might be unreasonable for someone who has decided not to get vaccinated to expect to be treated in the same way as someone who has been vaccinated twice.”
He told Times Radio: “I think we need to look venue-by-venue at the practicalities of introducing that, but I can see certain venue owners, who are putting on large and major events for which they themselves may be trying to get insurance in order to protect their investment in those events, it may well be this is something those venues actively want to encourage so they’ve got that extra level of certainty.”