Universities and up to a million students were eagerly awaiting the government’s latest roadmap announcement, in anticipation that they would be able to return to safe, socially-distanced in-person teaching and learning from 12 April.
Instead, they have been met with a communications vacuum.
In a letter to the Prime Minister, Professor Julia Buckingham CBE, President, Universities UK said:
“The list of sectors which are allowed to operate in-person activities in England from 12 April is extensive – all shops, personal care businesses, gyms, spas, zoos, theme parks, public libraries and community centres – and restrictions will be lifted enabling people to travel anywhere in England for a self-catering holiday.
“It therefore seems illogical that students are not allowed to return to their self-catering accommodation and resume their studies in Covid-safe university facilities, particularly at this crucial time of the academic year. This is another blow for those students who have been studying online since early December, and you will be aware of many studies highlighting the impact on students’ mental health, wellbeing and development.”
UUK had previously made an evidence-based case to the government on the benefits of a 12 April return for students’ mental health and wellbeing, as well as the wide-ranging Covid safety measures in place on campuses that have successfully minimised virus transmission this year.
With no announcement forthcoming, UUK is now asking the government to publish the evidence behind its decision-making, and explain what steps they will take to support the mental health and wider prospects of every student still awaiting news on when they will see a return to in-person activities.
Notes to editors
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.
The text of the full letter to the Prime Minister is available on the Universities UK website.
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.
Universities have been working hard to prepare for the summer term for all students with plans including 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.
Term dates will vary, and so individual students should wait to hear more from their university, but UUK’s work looking at plans for the summer term suggests that the majority of universities have plans for programmes, activities and extended opening of some facilities which will be available and of benefit to students even if they are unable to return until May. For this reason, we need government to give a clearer indication about plans for the return of all students in the summer term.
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.
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 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:
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.