Could universities close again? The new Covid-19 lockdown rules for students in England

The university experience is very different for this year's batch of students

University life is dramatically different this year
University life is dramatically different this year Credit: EyeEm

Since university students arrived on campus for the 2020-2021 academic year, their lives have been very different to what they were expecting. 

Smaller class sizes, online lectures, halls segregated by course topic, and only virtual freshers’ events; the impact of the pandemic on student life has been far-reaching and may last well into 2021.

Below we answer the most common questions about universities’ plans to return to academic life after the coronavirus pandemic.

What are the new rules when the current lockdown ends?

From today, regions will move into tiers so local social distancing rules and quarantine measures will apply.  Boris Johnson outlined the new three tier rules on Monday 23 November, and the regions affected by each tier were later announced on Thursday 26 November. 

Whilst non-essential shops and hairdressers will re-open, the rules for each area will be much like before lockdown - they will vary depending on which tier you are in. However, schools, colleges and universities will remain open across all tiers.

The Prime Minister has promised that testing will be available for students to ensure they can return home for Christmas and return again to university in January safely.

Here are the new rules which came into place on December 2: 

When will students be allowed to travel home for Christmas?

Students are encouraged to go home for Christmas during a 'travel window' set from December 3 to 9, in which universities will organise staggered departure dates to avoid overloading public transport.

On Monday, November 29, the government launched a mass-asymptomatic-testing program on campus’ across the UK. The program aims to test all students who plan on travelling home Christmas. In order to prevent the spread of the virus over the holiday, the government its offering lateral flow tests to universities, which can be taken by students, and do not require laboratory processing. Therefore, the participant will receive their results within ‘an hour’. 

However, this testing method has recently received criticism from The University and College Union (UCU) who reported that some students have already travelled home for Christmas. They also shared that many students may decline the test in an attempt to avoid self-isolating in their halls of residence. 

Students must adhere to the Government’s travel guidance on the wearing of face coverings and limit car sharing with only their household or bubble.

Those returning from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, to England must adhere to the guidelines of the tier they arrive in and should maintain “at least 14 days of restricted contact either before or after return home to minimise their risk of transmission.”

Universities are to move learning online by December 9 so students can continue to study at home. Anyone remaining on campus beyond this date will still have access to learning.

Although the 'travel window' hopes to reduce the risk of students spreading Covid-19 many have raised concerns, including Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr. Jenny Harries. 

"The mass movement of students across the country at the end of term presents a really significant challenge within the COVID-19 response,” said Dr Harries.

Will students be tested for coronavirus?

Mass testing has been rolled out at universities across the UK since November 30, but not all of them.

Students will be able to take two tests, three days apart. Should they test negative, they will leave in the travel window which begins on December 3.  

Universities De Montfort, Cambridge and Exeter have all been part of pilot schemes to test students on campus.

What does a typical week look like for students otherwise?

The lockdown guidance does not allow university students to go to one another's households and staying at home is encouraged except for education.

Universities are under orders to prohibit "private gatherings" in halls of residence that exceed the limits for gatherings in private households.

Students were asked to consider the possibility of them spreading the disease to older age groups, as figures show an increase in cases among 20-29 year-olds. The Prime Minister warned that students who became ill would be asked not to travel home.

In a series of proposals for easing out of lockdown safely unveiled in June by Universities UK (UUK), a vice-Chancellor membership organisation, showed that young people’s social spheres would be far smaller than in a typical year.

Students live and study in bubbles composed of people from the same course in order to reduce transmission of coronavirus on campus. These groups share a timetable to restrict exposure to other bubbles, and freshers’ week mixers were virtual.

The University and College Union (UCU) has demanded that all non-essential teaching must move online.

Figures put together by the union suggest that there have been more than 35,000 cases on campuses since term started.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: “The health and safety of the country is being put at risk because of this government’s insistence that universities must continue with in-person teaching.”

The Government said universities should consider moving to increased levels of online learning where possible.

Even walking around campus has been different, with some universities imposing one-way pedestrian systems. 

Mr Johnson said: “My message to students is simple. Please, for the sake of your education, for your parents’ and your grandparents’ health, wash your hands, cover your face, make space, and don’t socially gather in groups of more than six now and when term starts.”

Are student halls different?

Halls of residence have been less crowded. Many universities were predicting a drop in international students thanks to Brexit. The coronavirus pandemic has kept even more away, so most pupils are UK residents already. 

Most universities are cleaning communal areas - kitchens, bathrooms, lounges - more regularly.

Some universities considered segregating halls based on course subjects, to reduce interaction with people from other bubbles.

What about freshers flu?

As Warwick University pointed out to its students, because the symptoms of freshers flu are similar to coronavirus, those who experienced mild symptoms would need to self-isolate until they are tested and the results return as negative. 

This means any students who have symptoms such as a persistent new cough, a loss of  taste or smell and a high temperature would need to self-isolate, along with those they have been in contact with. 

How much tuition is online?

Most universities held most lectures online. Many said that smaller groups of students would be able to meet in socially distanced tutorials.

In May, the University of Cambridge became the first British institution to announce that it would hold all lectures online for the entire 2020-21 academic year. Tutorials and smaller classes could take place in person, the university said, provided they could conform to social distancing requirements. The University of Manchester made its lectures online at least for the autumn semester.

By contrast, the University of Bolton said it intended to install “airport-style walk-through temperature scanners at every building entry” and make face masks compulsory in order to ensure that the campus was fully opened in September.

Universities are to move learning online by 9 December following the Christmas 'travel window.' 

Will it change with each term?

It is hard to say how long these restrictions will last; that depends entirely on how the pandemic progresses.

Universities UK addresses this uncertainty in its set of guidelines, Principles and Considerations: Emerging from Lockdown. “Restrictions relating to Covid-19 may continue for some time or be lifted and then be imposed again in response to further national or localised outbreaks,” the document stated. “The principles within this document will still apply, subject to the lifting of subsequent Covid-19 restrictions.”

Will fees be affected?

In April, Michelle Donelan, the higher education minister, announced that current students would not be entitled to refunds or compensation for their learning moving online if it was still of high quality.  

“We have already seen over the last few months courses being delivered online and virtually at an amazing quality and degree and I know the efforts that staff across the sector have made to be able to facilitate that,” she said.

Not everyone is happy with that. A QS survey revealed 75 per cent of students think tuition fees ought to be discounted if they have to study online this year. 

Can I get a fee refund?

Maybe.

The Department for Education has said that if universities are “unable to facilitate adequate online tuition then it would be unacceptable for students to be charged for any additional terms”.

In order to pursue a refund, you would have to complain directly to your university. If that is unsuccessful, you may appeal, using a “completions procedure form” from your university with the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) in England or Wales, or Scottish Public Services Ombudsman or Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman, if your university is in one of those countries.

Thousands of students have demanded refunds of tuition fees, fearing coronavirus will ruin their university experiences.

More universities are telling students that all teaching will be online-only.  

Many students are disappointed by this, arguing they are getting bad value for money, while more than 3,000 have been trapped in their halls under recent university lockdowns.

Hundreds of thousands of people signed an online petition to refund tuition fees for 2020-21 due to Covid-19. 

Read more: Can I get a refund on my university fees because of Covid-19 disruptions?

Are the numbers of students down? How many people are deferring their places?

Universities have seen a downturn in new students this year. A survey from the University and College Union found that 71 per cent of applicants preferred to delay starting university if it meant they would get more face-to-face teaching. 

Independent research from the University of Leicester found 41 per cent of 2,000 surveyed UK students considered deferring their places until 2021 because of uncertainty over online courses and safety.

Yet the ability to defer was not guaranteed. The University of Oxford, for example, said it did not encourage it: “Subject to any public health conditions still being in force, we are expecting to welcome a full cohort of new undergraduates in October 2020, so we will not routinely support requests for deferral. Any offer holders with particular, verifiable reasons to wish to defer their place should contact the college which made their offer or open-offer to discuss this.”

 Each university and each college at Oxford or Cambridge have considered deferrals on a case-by-case basis, so it’s best to contact your university directly.

If students defer their entries, this could spell trouble for universities - especially because their intake of international students was lower this year. Universities expect to lose £2.5bn in funding next year due to the loss of international students (who pay higher fees), who are unable to travel to the UK. 

What is happening around the world?

The chancellor of California State University, a 23-campus system of higher education in the US state, said it would be cancelling classes for the autumn semester, with all instruction taking place online. Other American universities said that they intended to re-open their campuses this autumn, but they were also making back-up online plans.

Other American universities are shortening their autumn semesters, cancelling the mid-term break and sending students home for winter break at Thanksgiving, in late November, in order to avoid the beginning of the flu season. Some scientists have predicted that there will be a second spike of coronavirus cases when flu season hits.

And in Europe, even as schools have re-opened with social distancing measures across the continent, universities have found themselves at the back of the queue in terms of priorities. In part, this is because online teaching at a tertiary level has found relative success.

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