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Government orders UK universities to stagger student return as school reopenings delayed by 2 weeks

The Education Secretary has announced that most students will not return to universities across the country at the start of January.

Gavin Williamson made the change this afternoon as Boris Johnson announced that swathes of England will enter Tier 4 coronavirus restrictions from midnight amid rising COVID-19 infection rates nationwide.

From tomorrow – New Year’s Eve – 8 in 10 people in England will be subject to the highest tier restrictions, extended in response to concerns about hospitals being overwhelmed by coronavirus.

The Government’s newest advice on university reopenings comes alongside changes to the schedule for pupils returning to primary and secondary schools. Secondary school reopening dates across the country will be delayed for two weeks, while both primary and secondary schools could be closed for longer in the areas worst affected by Covid-19. Year 11 and Year 13 students will return to school from 11 January, and other secondary students will return a week later.

These measures represent the Government’s response to scientists warning that failing to do so would make keeping the R number below 1 impossible, even if something akin to a nationwide lockdown was introduced. 

Williamson told the House of Commons that: “We are…asking universities to reduce the number of students who return to campus at the start of January, prioritising students who require practical learning to gain their professional qualifications”. 

This suggests that those studying subjects like medicine – or who are student teachers – will likely be able to return to universities earlier. From this point of view, the changes announced to schools today are certainly more dramatic than those to universities, especially given that individual universities will likely have some latitude in deciding how to implement the new rules.

However, it does also represent a change in the Government’s approach that might mean other subjects with high amounts of in-person teaching, but where it is not deemed directly necessary for the qualification – such as performing arts – may see students returning later than was expected before today’s announcement.

The Guardian has said that the measures will mean fewer than 1 in 5 students will be able to return to their campus before 18 January. The Government will review the start dates for the later ‘waves’ of student returns in January.

The University of Oxford has not yet updated its advice for returning students on its website and many Oxford students remain unaware of when they will be able to return. Previously, on 14 December, the University said that formal in-person teaching would begin for select students from normal start dates while other students would see in-person teaching begin on 25 January, the start of 2nd week.

All Oxford students have been encouraged to take three Lateral Flow Tests (LFDs) upon returning to university in January.

The University of Oxford has been contacted for comment.

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