Published: 13:01, 14 April 2021
| Updated: 20:06, 14 April 2021
University leaders have criticised the government after it confirmed all students in England will not be allowed to return to campus until mid-May at the earliest.
The Department for Education (DfE) expects all remaining students to be able to return to in-person teaching on campus when further easing of restrictions on social contact indoors is confirmed, which will be no earlier than May 17.
Aisha Dosanjh is the acting president of the Kent Union
Progression to the next stage of the road map will be dependent on a review of the latest data and the impact of other restrictions being eased this month.
Sector leaders are calling on the government to explain how it reached its decision.
Speaking on BBC 5 Live this morning, the vice chancellor and principal of Christ Church University in Canterbury, Professor Rama Thirunamachandran, said he was "frustrated and disappointed" students could not return until May 17.
"Firstly, it's a really difficult time for all students and young people and the pandemic has had a huge impact on them and one can but only feel for the position they are in.
"I am really disappointed that the government has not allowed the remaining students to come back until next month because we have spent hundreds of thousands of pounds making our campus Covid secure.
"Having done that when non-essential retail is being allowed to re-open along with gyms, zoos and beauty parlours, why should students not be allowed to resume their studies in person on campus?.
"It's disappointing and I share the students' frustrations as well."
Prof Thirunamachandran admitted that by the time the students were allowed back to resume their studies on May 17, it wouldn't be helpful for up to two-thirds of them whose courses would have ended.
He added: "For those, we have decided to support them with matters around employability, particularly for final year students, so we will be doing things beyond the core curriculum."
Earlier this week, Professor Karen Cox, the University of Kent’s vice chancellor and president, wrote to Kent MPs expressing her frustration.
Prof Cox’s letter said: "The list of sectors which are allowed to operate in-person activities in England from April 12 is extensive – all shops, personal care businesses, gyms, spas, zoos, theme parks, public libraries, and community centres.
"Individuals will also be able to travel across England for self-catered holidays, but students remain unable to access in-person facilities and support services.
"It therefore seems illogical and unfair that students who have been studying online up until now are being told they still cannot access facilities or socially-distanced teaching in their Covid-safe university campus... despite the significant benefits it would bring to their mental health and development.
"Like other universities we have put in place a wide range of measures to make in-person support services available safely and those students who have accessed these resources have done so with great care, consideration and sense of responsibility."
Students studying key worker courses and other subjects requiring practical learning or specialist equipment were able to return in January and March but government advice states others should remain at non-term time addresses and universities should not provide in-person teaching.
Prof Cox added: "Many students have been studying away from university since the start of December, and we have particular concerns about the impact of a prolonged period away from campus on students from disadvantaged and underrepresented backgrounds.
"Ensuring students can return to some in-person teaching and benefit from in-person social and sporting activities as well as careers advice and mentoring opportunities will be vital to their wellbeing, personal development and employment prospects."
She highlighted the role universities across the country had played during the pandemic, including research and vaccine development, as well as supporting students by moving teaching, assessment and mental health services online.
Prof Cos added: "Students themselves have played a vital role in keeping themselves and their communities safe through the pandemic and we strongly feel they now deserve to know the government’s rationale behind allowing other sectors of the economy to open up while they continue to be advised against returning to campus."
“The movement of students across the country poses a risk for the transmission of the virus – particularly because of the higher prevalence and rates of transmission of new variants."
In a written ministerial statement, universities minister Michelle Donelan said all remaining students will be advised not to return to face-to-face lessons on campus until mid-May at the earliest.
She said: “The movement of students across the country poses a risk for the transmission of the virus – particularly because of the higher prevalence and rates of transmission of new variants.
“Students who have returned to higher education settings should not move back and forward between their permanent home and student home during term time unless they meet one of the exemptions.”
The scrapping of in-person lectures led to calls from some students and parents for tuition fees to be refunded.