All university students in England will not be allowed to return to campus until mid-May at the earliest, the Government has confirmed.
The Department for Education (DfE) expects all remaining students to be able to return to in-person teaching on campus when further easing of restrictions on social contact indoors is confirmed, which will be no earlier than May 17.
But progression to the next stage of the road map will be dependent on a review of the latest data and the impact of other restrictions being eased this month.
The decision came after university leaders in England intensified calls for students to be allowed to return to campus as soon as possible as seminars and lectures will be largely coming to an end at many universities by mid-May.
Sector leaders – who are calling on the Government to explain how it reached its decision – have described the move as “nonsensical” and “unfathomable”.
Most students in England – apart from those on critical courses – were told not to return to campus as part of the lockdown announced in January.
University students on practical courses, who require specialist equipment and facilities, began returning to face-to-face teaching on March 8.
Watch: England open for business: What rules change?
It is estimated that around half of university students in England are currently not eligible to return to in-person teaching.
In a written ministerial statement, universities minister Michelle Donelan said all remaining students will be advised not to return to face-to-face lessons on campus until mid-May at the earliest.
She 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.
“Students who have returned to higher education settings should not move back and forward between their permanent home and student home during term time unless they meet one of the exemptions.”
Professor Graham Galbraith, vice-chancellor at the University of Portsmouth, said delaying the return of all students until May 17 was “unfathomable”.
He added: “That this date is after many universities will have finished their teaching year shows a Government with a cavalier disregard for details. This isn’t good enough.
“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.”
On returning, all students and staff are encouraged to take three supervised tests – three to five days apart – at an asymptomatic testing site on campus.
After this, students will also have access to home testing kits throughout the summer term, the DfE said.
Ms Donelan added: “The Government and I recognise just how difficult and disruptive the last year has been for students.
“However, the road map is designed to maintain a cautious approach to the easing of restrictions, to ensure that we can maintain progress towards full reopening. By step three, more of the population will be vaccinated, and there is also more time to increase testing to reduce risk further.”
In a recent letter to Boris Johnson, Professor Julia Buckingham, president of Universities UK (UUK), which represents vice-chancellors, said it was “illogical” to open shops, gyms, spas, zoos, theme parks, libraries and community centres on April 12 but not allow students to return to campus.
Prof Buckingham 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.
“With schools, colleges and many businesses open, we now need the Government to urgently explain how it reached this decision so that universities can communicate with their students and continue preparing to maximise opportunities for in-person activities from May 17.”
Vanessa Wilson, chief executive of University Alliance, said: “They have traded the health and wellbeing of higher education students in favour of other parts of the economy in a move that is both nonsensical and deeply disingenuous to the nation’s future workforce, upon whom we will all rely to power the UK’s future.”
A parliamentary petition calling for students to be allowed to return to university at the start of the summer term has more than 6,000 signatures.
Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, vice president for higher education at the National Union of Students, said: “Students have missed out not just on huge swathes of education and hands-on experience this year, but on experiencing campus life.
“Having experienced so much injustice, students deserve better than being disregarded by the Government time and time again.”
University and College Union (UCU) general secretary Jo Grady said: ‘The UK government has consistently disregarded the needs of university staff and students throughout this pandemic, treating them as an afterthought at best.
“So unfortunately, it is no surprise that it has only confirmed university learning will remain online the day after many students have already started their summer term.
‘Ministers now need to be honest with staff and students and confirm most courses will stay online until September, which is what UCU has been calling for. Restarting in-person activities in mid-May makes absolutely no sense, as many students’ exams will already have finished.”
Recent data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) suggests that around three-quarters of students (76%) are living at the same address as they were at the start of the autumn term.
Students who need additional mental health support, or who do not have access to appropriate study spaces in their vacation accommodation, are allowed to return to term-time accommodation.
Ms Donelan said: “We have asked providers to consider opening facilities to support those who have returned to their term-time accommodation alongside those who have resumed in-person teaching and learning; this is to safeguard students’ wellbeing and to prevent isolation and mental ill health.”
The DfE will make an additional £15 million of funding available for student hardship this academic year, she added.
The minister said: “I realise that a delay to a return to university may cause some students to face additional costs.”
Watch: Coronavirus peaks examined across the UK