Universities should stagger the return of students over five weeks after Christmas to reduce the transmission of Covid-19, the Government has said.
Coronavirus tests should be offered to all students when they return to campus in the new year to help isolate those who are asymptomatic.
Medical students and those on placements or practical courses with a need for in-person teaching in England should return to university between January 4 and January 18, according to the Department for Education (DfE) guidance.
But the remaining students should be offered online lessons from the beginning of term to protect students, staff and local communities.
They will be allowed to return to their university gradually over a two-week period from January 25, the DfE has said.
The guidance has been published hours before the start of the “travel window” in England – where students can return to their families for Christmas.
Many universities are rolling out mass asymptomatic coronavirus testing this week in a bid to get students home safely ahead of the festive break.
The DfE has now said all students should be offered Covid-19 asymptomatic tests when they return to university in the new year.
All universities will be offered testing facilities to give students two rapid lateral flow tests, three days apart, to control the spread of the virus.
Students should restrict contact in the period between their tests – and if they receive a positive test they will have to self-isolate in their accommodation, the DfE said.
The Government has also announced a one-off fund of up to £20 million to help students most in need of support in these exceptional circumstances.
Universities Minister Michelle Donelan said: “The health and wellbeing of students, staff and local communities is always our primary concern and this plan will enable a safer return for all students. But we must do this in a way which minimises the risk of transmission.
“I know students have had to make sacrifices this year and have faced a number of challenges, but this staggered return will help to protect students, staff and communities.
“It is so important students have the support they need to continue their education, which is why we are providing up to £20 million funding for those facing hardship in these exceptional times.”
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: “I encourage all students to play their part in bringing this virus under control by getting tested twice, and by following the restrictions in place when travelling to and from university this term.”
The DfE has said universities should also consider prioritising students who may need to return to campus earlier for other reasons – such as those who do not have access to appropriate accommodation or study space.
Students who have spent the winter break in Tier 3 areas where mass community testing is on offer should take a test before travelling back to university if possible, the Government has suggested.
The guidance says: “While we are confident that the face-to-face teaching element of blended learning can be done in Covid-secure environments, the mass movement of students across the country poses a greater risk for the transmission of infection between areas.”
University and College Union (UCU) general secretary Jo Grady called it “a step forward”, but she warned that plans for next term still pose a risk to staff and students.
She said: “We need to see an effective test, trace and isolate programme that links university and public testing systems. This must include coordinating student travel between institutions, and risk assessments on any return to campus.
“We need online learning to remain the default position for universities until these issues are fixed, otherwise we risk further spikes in virus transmission.”
On the plans, a Universities UK (UUK) spokeswoman said: “While January will undoubtedly be challenging for the country, a staggered approach will allow enhanced testing capacity to be maximised so that Covid-safe in-person teaching can begin at the start of term for some students, and shortly after for others.”
She added: “Universities now need further clarity from the Government on how they will be supported to deliver testing in the new year, given the significant resource requirements associated with the pilots so far.”
Dr Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group – which represents the most selective universities in the UK – said: “It’s helpful for universities and students to have clarity on the Government’s plan for managing the return of students in January. Our members will now be working hard to implement it and make students aware.”
He added: “Government has rightly said that campus facilities – study spaces, libraries and labs – should remain open for students who don’t have suitable learning spaces at home, and those staying on campuses over the winter break, including international students, even if they are not attending in-person lessons in January.
“With the help of hardworking staff, universities will do everything they can to ensure the best possible learning experience for all students, be that in-person or online.”