Students have called on the universities minister to provide emergency financial support to cover fees and rent after she announced that most of them should not return until at least the end of January.
Michelle Donelan also told international students preparing to travel from overseas that they should “consider whether they in fact need to travel to the UK at this time”.
The spread of a new Covid-19 variant and the extension of tougher tier 4 restrictions across part of England were cited by Donelan as reasons why the government had to consider further steps to reduce transmission in education settings.
However, the announcement on Wednesday evening left students scrambling to make plans, with some directly challenging Donelan on social media to help them with costs including rent for accommodation that will not be used and fees for course that will not be delivered as envisaged.
“I’ll be blunt, students want to help but without the government helping them with this endeavour, and to make it cost-effective to them, the plan will fail,” Joshua Connor, an international relations and politics student at the University of Lincoln, wrote in a letter to Donelan.
Giving an example of the financial burden he and others faced, Connor told her that he would have to pay £2,100 to the university for the spring term on top of having lost several weeks of accommodation because of travelling home for Christmas during a government-designated “student travel window”. From 5 December to 25 January, he would have paid £1,057 for accommodation he has been unable to use.
Like others, he was considering whether or not to travel to use his rented accommodation.
Further guidance from the government is expected next week. University authorities have been writing to students in the past 48 hours to advise them of the Department for Education announcement.
Cambridge University’s vice-chancellor, Stephen Toope, said in an email to students that the delay was “potentially disruptive and difficult to students”. The academic registrar of Newcastle University, Lucy Backhurst, told students: “We appreciate these last-minute changes will bring their own challenges to many of you.”
Support would include January rent rebates for students living in university-owned, university-managed and partnership accommodation arrangements.
Universities UK, which represents the sector, said the announcement by Donelan “would understandably raise further issues and uncertainty – for students, universities and staff – which will need to be addressed by government over the coming weeks, including the need for financial support, regulatory flexibility and assessment changes”.
The government said it was asking universities to restrict the number of practical students returning from 4 January to those reading subjects in areas including medicine, dentistry and related subjects, social work and courses requiring professional assessments for January and which cannot be rescheduled. Other students with “compelling reasons to return” were also identified.
In a separate letter to students, Donelan said her department had worked with the Office for Students to remind education providers that they could use existing funds for hardship support.
She added that the government was making available up to a further £20m on a one-off basis to support those who needed it most.