Earlier this week, the government marked 17 May as the earliest possible date for a full return to campus and to resume face-to-face teaching in England – which sparked backlash from students and industry bodies.
But on Thursday, the universities minister defended the move, saying: “At the heart of our decision was public heath – but also student wellbeing.”
“The last thing any of us want is for students to have to repeatedly self-isolate as some did last autumn,” Michelle Donelan told parliament.
She said this would not only be “damaging to their mental health and wellbeing” but also risk the ability of some doing creative and practical subjects to graduate.
After students moved onto campus at the start of the last academic term, universities were faced with coronavirus outbreaks, which – in some cases – led to hundreds self-isolating in halls.
Leading university bodies have called the 17 May date a “major blow” and “hugely disappointing for students” amid estimations of one million students unable to access face-to-face teaching for at least another month.
Meanwhile, the University and College Union repeated calls for teaching to stay online until the next academic year, with its president saying the May plans make “absolutely no sense” as “many students” will have already finished exams by then.
University students told The Independent the decision was “annoying” and “frustrating” as their teaching is scheduled to have finished by then anyway.
On Thursday, Ms Donelan said while some students will have finished or be approaching the end of their course by this date, “a great number will not”.
She added: “We think it is important to give them the opportunity to get back for the wider university experience as well.”
Ms Donelan said the latest Office for National Statistics data estimates 23 per cent of students have not yet returned to their term-time accommodation.
“This still leaves up to 500,000 students yet to travel and throughout the pandemic, Sage have warned of the risks posed by the mass movement of students, especially given that they form new households.”
However, Labour pointed out in parliament ONS data suggests around three quarters of students are already in their term-time accomodation.
Many courses moved online right before the Christmas holidays to allow students to migrate back home during a recommended travel period.
As England went into lockdown in early January, it was confirmed most courses would be taught virtually and these students told to stay put, while many were at home for the holidays.
From 8 March, all students on practical courses were allowed to join others on courses such as medicine and dentistry back on campus for in-person teaching.
It was announced this week all remaining students will be able to return alongside step three of England’s roadmap out of lockdown – due no earlier than 17 May – when restrictions on social contact will be further relaxed and most indoor settings allowed to reopen.
Ms Donelan said on Thursday under the current roadmap stage social mixing “remains focused outside” and “the formation of new households” is not included.
Earlier this week, Professor Graham Galbraith, vice-chancellor at the University of Portsmouth, said: “Students can now buy a book on British history in Waterstones and discuss it with a tattoo artist while they have their body decorated, but they cannot do the same thing in a Covid-secure environment with their university lecturer.”
In a statement on Tuesday, Ms Donelan said the government and herself undersand “how difficult and disruptive” the past year has been for students.
She said the roadmap aims for a “cautious approach” to easing restrictions “to ensure that we can maintain progress towards full reopening”.