Some students in England have begun returning to campus for in-person lessons after months of remote learning – but for many undergraduates their teaching has already finished for the year.
All remaining university students are now allowed to travel back to their term-time accommodation and take part in face-to-face activities on campus as restrictions are being eased across England.
But many institutions have already finished lessons for the academic year and are now running exams, which are largely being held remotely.
University leaders have criticised the Government for delaying the return of face-to-face lessons for all students until now – and a number of students have called for tuition fee refunds amid the disruption.
Chloe Baker, a first-year English Literature student at the University of Reading, does not have any face-to-face lessons this week as she has exams – which end at the start of June.
She told the PA news agency: “I do think that the course price should definitely be lowered. £9,000 is quite a lot for an online course basically.”
The 20-year-old said: “It only hit me recently that the year is almost over and I didn’t really have much in-person teaching at all. So that did shock me to be honest.”
She added: “I would have appreciated it definitely if it [in-person lessons] had started earlier because now it is the summer term and there’s not really much teaching at all going on at the moment.
“There’s a lot more people back for the exam season. But pretty soon people will be leaving again and it will start to get empty, which is strange.”
Most students in England, apart from those on critical courses, were told not to travel back to university as part of the third lockdown announced in January.
Students on practical courses, who require specialist equipment and facilities, began returning to face-to-face teaching on March 8.
But it is estimated that around half of students, including many arts and humanities students, were not able to return to in-person lessons until now.
Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, vice president for higher education at the National Union of Students (NUS), said: “In reality, only a small portion of students will be travelling back to university today.
“At this point in the term, most teaching is finished, many students are already on placements or have decided they’re better off waiting until the next academic year to return.
“A significant number of students will have returned to term-time accommodation weeks ago, wanting to make use of the accommodation they were still forced to pay out for.
“With widespread financial insecurity facing students, it is disheartening that so many are having to make decisions around accessing their education based on affordability.
“Students deserve better than what they’ve experienced this year.”
Ian Dunn, Coventry University provost, said the Government’s decision not to allow all students to resume in-person lessons until now – when other restrictions were lifted last month – seemed “perverse”.
He told PA: “A third of my students are international and of the two thirds that are not international, half are commuting and half are residential.
“So the idea that we’d have this enormous movement of people around the country I think was not necessarily very obvious.
“As for the ‘why open pubs before you open universities?’, I think it goes counter to what the Government was saying very clearly that education was the most important thing and that didn’t seem to be the case when it came to April 12.”
Mr Dunn said students who still have teaching this term are being offered a blended learning approach – with five hours of in-person lessons a week and the rest of lessons online.
He said: “There are undoubtedly more students on campus today, but we are making provision available fully online. Some students have opted for that and we’ve tried to give them the choice they wish to make.”
For university courses that do still have some teaching left, returning students are expected to get tested for Covid-19 twice a week throughout the term.
At the University of Hull, students said it was “really nice” to see people returning to the campus.
Face-to-face lectures were taking place at the Cottingham Road site on Monday, while cafes and bars welcomed the return of customers indoors.
James Aygun, a third-year drama and theatre practice student, said it had been “really difficult” to try to study his subject online.
He told PA: “To be back on campus, it’s been really refreshing. Just to see everyone, it’s so much easier to create theatre, so it’s made our life a lot easier.”
Mr Aygun, who returned to university in March, said: “It’s just nice to see everyone back because for the last month we’ve been here on our own pretty much so just to get that camaraderie, it feels so much better when everyone’s around, everyone’s happy.
“People, especially students, want to immerse themselves with interaction so it’s really important to have everyone back, everyone feeling good, so it’s just really nice.”
Vanessa Wilson, chief executive of the University Alliance, said: “We have been calling for this for many months, and whilst the return is later than hoped, our member universities are ready and prepared to welcome their students back to make the most of this final term with extensive learning and development activities and opportunities; alongside the outstanding face-to-face teaching sessions.”
She added: “Alliance universities have a high proportion of commuter students, who have been living locally but unable to access campus. We understand there to be huge demand amongst all students, including those returning from elsewhere, to be allowed back to university for the remainder of term, and we expect numbers will be high.”
Dr Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group, which are traditionally the most selective institutions, said: “While many universities are now running examinations, students will be able to take part in a mix of online and in-person teaching, as well as access libraries and other facilities on campus.
“Universities have also planned additional non-academic activities to help students to develop peer networks and prepare for the world of work.
“Our universities have worked hard to make their campuses Covid-secure, and we would encourage all students to take up the offer of free twice-weekly testing so we are able to help contain future Covid outbreaks.”
Students have been encouraged to take a test via home or community testing at least one day before they travel back to their term-time accommodation.
All students will be encouraged to take three supervised Covid-19 tests three to four days apart at an asymptomatic testing site on campus. They will then be expected to be tested for Covid-19 twice a week.
A Universities UK (UUK) spokeswoman said: “Universities have been working hard to prepare in-person activities for returning students, including group work, graduate support and on-campus sport.”