THE Education Secretary is drawing up new plans for students to make a staggered return to universities in March.
Under Gavin Williamson’s blueprint, learners will begin to return to campuses in England from March 8 – even though education chiefs have warned many won’t be back before the summer.
Gavin Williamson is planning for students to make a phased return to universities from March 8, it’s reportedCredit: Rex Features
But officials are keen to avoid the chaos of September, when students were allowed to return to halls – only to face weeks of quarantine amid outbreaksCredit: Alamy
Officials will announce later this month that final-year students in practical subjects will return to face-to-face teaching within weeks, with students in other subjects following soon after, the Guardian reports.
However, unions say tuition should remain online for the rest of the academic year.
It comes amid a national row over getting those in education back into class.
Both universities and the Government fear the financial hit of extended closures. Students across the country are still paying tuition fees and rent, despite the closures.
Elsewhere, officials are under increasing pressure to reopen schools.
Experts say kids need to be back in class as soon as possible, with top professors saying youngsters should return after the February half-term.
Boris Johnson has vowed to set out his road map out of lockdown around February 22, with schools opening their doors on March 8.
The PM said he “understands people want to go further” and get back to normal as quickly as possible – and insisted: “I share that urgency.”
The R-rate is below one for the first time since July
Students are continuing to pay for tuition and accommodation – despite the closure of campusesCredit: Alamy
But he vowed not to open schools too soon – warning that if he did, there’s a huge risk the nation could be “forced into reverse”.
The PM added: “This is the cautious approach, it’s much better to stick to that.”
However, University of East Anglia professor of medicine Paul Hunter has said schools should reopen before then.
He said: “I think there could well be a case for opening schools sooner — I particularly think schools for children under 11 years of age, where the evidence that they contribute to the spread of the epidemic in the wider population is a lot lower.”
Meanwhile, the R rate has dropped to between 0.7 and 1 for the first time since July – but dates for the easing of England’s strict lockdown have still not been announced.
It’s understood the first step to loosening restrictions will be for Brits to meet more people outside.
Currently, people are allowed to meet just one person from another household outdoors, and only for the purpose of exercise.
Pubs are expected to be shut completely for months to come – although The Sun has exclusively revealed they’ll open without curfews or restrictions in May, with takeaway pints offered from April.
As the way out of lockdown is revealed this month, many students will be hoping to get back to uni.
Covid cases are finally beginning to plummet in the UK after deaths surged to record levels in January
The new higher education timetable has been welcomed by senior leaders – but it’s reported that Mr Williamson is falling out of favour with No10, meaning the plan could be abandoned.
Ministers are also keen to avoid a repeat of last autumn’s chaos, when tens of thousands of students travelled to university only to be forced to isolate amid huge Covid outbreaks.
Universities Minister Michelle Donelan says unis will follow the same roadmap as schools for reopening.
She told the Tab that the government “will be looking at data including death rates, the virus rate, the vaccination programme and the pressure on the NHS” before announcing the decision on February 22.
“From March 8, more students will be able to go back, should that be what we decide, and that does include higher education students,” she said.
It’s understood students in their last year of practical degrees – like medical and veterinary science – will be prioritised, along with those studying degrees seen as important, like nursing and teaching.
There are 1.3million undergraduates in England. The Government has not given any direct financial aid to universities or students, other than hardship funds.
Jo Grady, the general secretary of the University and College Union, said: “The priority right now must be to keep as much teaching as possible online for the rest of the academic year, and putting staff and student safety first.
“Instead, ministers and universities seem intent on reopening campuses due to financial pressures.
“We need to learn the lessons of last term and prevent further outbreaks.”