Students should not return home from university before the second lockdown begins as it will risk the lives of loved ones, a minister has said.
Universities minister Michelle Donelan has also called on institutions not to switch fully to online lessons during the lockdown as she warned it could jeopardise students’ learning and “risk their mental health”.
In a letter to students ahead of the second lockdown in England, Ms Donelan has urged young people against travelling back to their families before the new national restrictions come into effect on Thursday.
She said: “I know and appreciate that a number of you may want to be back with your family during this difficult time, but I urge you to stay where you are in order to save lives.”
In a separate letter to vice-chancellors, the minister said she wants all students to have “some form of face-to-face learning” where possible, as they had not seen evidence of increased transmission within teaching environments on university campuses.
Ms Donelan said: “We expect you to continue to make informed decisions with your local public health teams on the level of face-to-face teaching and learning to provide, based on appropriate risk assessments and the needs of students and staff.
“We do not, however, want or expect to see a transition to full online learning during the new national restrictions — this could jeopardise the learning that students receive, as well as risk their mental health and wellbeing.”
It comes after guidance from the Cabinet Office said universities and adult education settings “should consider moving to increased levels of online learning where possible” during the four-week lockdown.
The University and College Union (UCU) is calling on vice-chancellors to move all non-essential activities online now to keep students and staff safe and to minimise the spread of Covid-19.
But new Department for Education (DfE) guidance on what universities and students in England should do during the second lockdown says face-to-face teaching should continue where it can be done safely.
The guidance says “commuter students” – those who live at their family home and travel to the university campus for lessons – will still be allowed to attend the university for educational purposes during the lockdown.
It also advises that face coverings should be worn in all university learning environments, providing that they do “not impact teaching and learning.”
The new guidelines say libraries and study spaces on campus should remain open during the new national restrictions, but students must not gather in these spaces unless it is part of a scheduled in-person seminar or tutorial.
Students have been told to remain at university and not to travel home before November 5 so that they can “benefit from face-to-face teaching and Covid-secure educational facilities” and prevent the risk of spreading coronavirus.
Ms Donelan told students: “The reason we are asking you to remain at your university area and not to travel home before the new restrictions come into place on Thursday is to prevent any further spread of Covid-19 — any movement around the country will risk the lives of our loved ones.”
Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, vice president for higher education at the National Union of Students (NUS), has called the demands “unjust” and she warned the rules could be “damaging” to students’ mental health.
The NUS is calling for more “credible options” to be put on the table – including letting students leave their halls, releasing them from rental contracts, or allowing them to leave their course altogether.
Ms Gyebi-Ababio said: “With news of a national lockdown, some students will understandably want to reform households with family and be around loved ones.
“With current guidance allowing people to move homes and form new households until Thursday it is unjust that the Government calls on students to stay put.
“For students that do remain on campus over lockdown we need to see additional mental health and wellbeing support provided in recognition of how challenging this period will be.”
She added: “For too many months, students have been at the whim of ever-changing guidance and rules, often expecting them to adhere to tighter restrictions than the rest of the population.
“Not only is this fundamentally unfair, it is hugely damaging for students’ mental health and finances, with the uncertainty making it harder for many to access education. This must change.”
A Universities UK (UUK) spokeswoman said: “As the universities minister has made clear in her letters to vice-chancellors and to students, students should remain at university and teaching, learning and student support should continue.
“Universities and Government recognise the importance of face-to-face teaching and learning activities in Covid-secure facilities for students’ education, mental health and wellbeing. This will include libraries and learning spaces remaining open.”