University leaders said it was deeply unfair that students could get haircuts or work in pubs next week but still had no idea when their campuses would reopen, as the government announced that school pupils in England will be expected to wear masks until the middle of May.
Many are angry at the government’s failure to include higher education in its latest coronavirus roadmap updates, saying they have had no guidance about when campuses in England can fully reopen.
While Boris Johnson confirmed that non-essential shops would reopen to customers from Monday, there was no mention in the prime minister’s briefing of how soon universities would be able to welcome back the bulk of their students to access libraries or seminars in person.
“It seems deeply unfair that students may be able to go to the pub or hairdressers and even work in these industries from 12 April, yet will not be able to access the facilities and opportunities on campus to support their learning and career development,” said Vanessa Wilson, chief executive of the University Alliance, which represents a number of institutions including Coventry University and the University of Brighton.
“The prime minister committed to education being the first sector to reopen, and while schools and colleges have been permitted to return, this has not been the case for all university students, raising real questions over equity.”
At least half of England’s 2.1 million university students are still studying entirely online, with only those studying for practical degrees or requiring specialist facilities being allowed to attend in-person classes during the first phase of the government’s lockdown easing from 8 March. Students on vital lab-based courses such as medicine have been able to attend since the start of the year.
The National Union of Students said Johnson’s failure to mention students in his statement on Monday was evidence they were being ignored by the prime minister.
“Students need information immediately about when they can expect to be back on campus, to allow them to make necessary arrangements,” said Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, the NUS’s vice-president for higher education.
“Students have missed out not just on huge swathes of education and hands-on experience this year, but on huge parts of campus life, on top of learning in cramped homes and bedrooms.”
Universities UK, which represents vice-chancellors and principals, said: “Universities in England have been looking forward to welcoming all students back and are fully prepared to do so, yet the government has failed to provide the clarity that universities, students and their parents have been calling for.”
The vice-chancellors’ group said that while gyms, spas, public libraries and self-catering holidays would be open to the public next week, students will still not be able return to their self-catering accommodation or use facilities or teaching on campus despite the benefits for their mental welfare and development.
“We urgently need the government to spell out when all students, not just those who need to complete practical work or access specialist facilities, will be able to return to in-person teaching, learning and support,” UUK said.
The Department for Education has said it will announce further details by the end of the Easter holidays after reviewing current arrangements.
The 17 May date marks the third phase of reopening under the government’s roadmap for England, with the DfE confirming on Tuesday that secondary school and college pupils would be expected to wear masks until then.
The DfE said it expected that “face coverings will no longer be required to be worn in classrooms, or by students in other communal areas, at step three of the roadmap, which will be no earlier than 17 May,” after a further review of evidence. All other safety measures will remain, including regular testing of secondary pupils, increased hygiene and ventilation, and social distancing.
Jon Richards, Unison’s head of education, said: “Wearing face coverings isn’t ideal, but they’re a valuable safety measure and will be needed for a while longer to allow schools to stay open. Keeping staff, pupils and their families safe and stopping wider infection spread is the most important thing.”