Following the announcement of the roadmap in February, universities have been preparing extensively for a final phase of student returns from 12 April, and a range of Covid-safe in-person activities are planned to give students the best possible experience for the remainder of the academic year. These include blended teaching and learning, opportunities to use library, computing and studio spaces, on-campus sport, graduate support bootcamps, and creative use of outdoor space – in accordance with government guidance – to encourage group work and social interaction.
Other areas of the economy – including shops classed by the government as non-essential – are set for a welcome return to business on 12 April. But concerns are growing that the next stage of student returns will be delayed until 17 May at the earliest – despite exceptional campus safety records following staggers in January and March, and strong evidence of the benefits that a 12 April return would bring to the mental health, wellbeing and development of those students who have had no in-person teaching or access to facilities this year.
Professor Julia Buckingham, President, Universities UK said:
"University students have been extremely tolerant in the face of huge disruption and a radically different experience this year, and have willingly made sacrifices in the interests of public safety. But the government must not take their resilience for granted.
"Universities are fully prepared and looking forward to welcoming students back to Covid-secure environments as soon as possible after Easter, with a variety of enriching activities on offer including in-person teaching, access to study spaces, studios, and sports facilities, alongside additional support and catch-up programmes for those due to graduate this year.
"The government has said that decisions will be based on data, not dates. Universities have proven that the safety measures put in place – including regular asymptomatic testing, additional cleaning, support for self-isolating students and adherence to guidance on ventilation and face coverings – have enabled effective management of the virus on campuses, with minimal infection rates in face-to-face teaching settings and limited onward transmission to local communities.
"When making this decision, we urge the government to take account of the rigorous Covid-safety measures universities have implemented as well as the clear benefits for students of a 12 April return."
Universities UK (UUK) is the collective voice of 140 universities in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Its mission is to create the conditions for UK universities to be the best in the world; maximising their positive impact locally, nationally and globally. Universities UK acts on behalf of universities, represented by their heads of institution.
UUK estimates that as many as 50% of the 2.1 million higher education students in England are still being taught fully online, either in their normal term-time accommodation or at home, with no access to university-provided in-person learning, activities, or support.
Recent data published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) revealed that almost two-thirds of students have experienced a decline in their mental health this academic year, and that students' life satisfaction during the pandemic remains far below the national adult average. Universities UK has called for targeted government support for student mental health.
Universities continue to make significant investments in student and staff safety including updated risk assessments, Covid-secure measures, enhanced testing, and lessons learned from the autumn. Measures include:
adherence to mandatory social distancing
continuation of blended learning even upon return (lectures remain online, in-person activities minimised, numbers using facilities such as libraries are controlled)
reduced numbers on campus and using facilities
increased hygiene measures across the university estate – teaching and learning spaces and in accommodation including enhanced cleaning and sanitisation stations
assessment of adequate ventilation in accordance with guidance
mandatory face coverings in all indoor public spaces in accordance with guidance
· regular review of risk assessments and a risk-based approach.
Previous data published by the ONS shows that infection rates of higher education teaching professionals are low compared to people working in other education settings. This follows prior research which revealed there is minimal evidence of Covid-19 transmission in face-to-face learning environments at universities, such as classrooms.
A recent recent Sutton Trust report on Covid-19 and the university experience showed that participation in extra-curricular activities this academic year is substantially down on normal. 39% of students reported taking part in student societies or sport in the autumn term, and this has fallen further since Christmas to just 30%. Almost half (47%) of students reported taking part in no wider enrichment activities at all this term, and they are also less likely to have taken part in work experience, paid work, or study abroad opportunities.
Universities have prepared a variety of additional activities designed to support final year undergraduates and postgraduate taught students who are graduating this year, including:
Volunteering projects with local charities and schools
On-campus and online employer-led events
In-person self-development events, and one-to-one drop in appointments
Intensive summer programmes to enable students on practical and practice-based subjects to spend more hours using specialist equipment and facilities