Students may be required to self-isolate at the end of the current university term in order to safely return home to be with their families at Christmas, the Education Secretary has said.
Gavin Williamson told MPs it was “essential” that measures were put in place to ensure students could be with their loved ones during the festive period while “minimising the risk of transmission” of Covid-19.
Speaking in the House of Commons on Tuesday, he said: “Where there are specific circumstances that warrant it, there may be a requirement for some students to self-isolate at the end of term and we will be working with the sector to ensure this will be possible, including ending in-person learning if that is deemed to be necessary.”
Mr Williamson said guidance on the issue would “shortly” be published by his department.
His statement comes as a surge in Covid-19 cases has led to thousands of students having to self-isolate at universities including Glasgow, Manchester Metropolitan and Edinburgh Napier.
According to university statements and local press reports this month, at least 30 institutions across the UK have seen confirmed coronavirus cases.
Responding to his statement, the National Union of Students (NUS) criticised Mr Williamson for being “completely absent” while coronavirus outbreaks struck universities.
NUS vice-president for higher education Hillary Gyebi-Ababio said: “In the past five days we’ve seen universities lock fire gates to stop students from leaving their halls, send private security guards with dogs to patrol student residences and lock down students with zero notice. This is unacceptable.
“Williamson has said his Government prioritises education, but he’s been completely absent until today.”
Labour had called on Mr Williamson to “end his Invisible Man act”, previously saying he had not made any public appearances in recent days.
The outbreaks and subsequent student accommodation lockdowns also led to the Labour demanding clarity over whether students would be able to safely return home this Christmas.
Concerns have also been raised over the level support being offered to self-isolating students.
Larissa Kennedy, president of the NUS, claimed on Monday that some of those self-isolating felt they were being “trapped” in “disgusting conditions”.
Mr Williamson said universities have been asked to provide “additional help and practical support” to students, with universities ensuring those isolating are “properly cared for” and can access food, medical and cleaning supplies if needed.
He said universities were “well prepared” to handle any Covid-19 outbreaks should they arise, adding: “Where students choose to stay in their university accommodation over Christmas, universities should continue making sure they’re safe and well looked after.”
Mr Williamson said students were expected to follow the same coronavirus guidance as local communities and that he did not believe there should be moves to “inflict stricter measures on students or expect higher standards of behaviour from them than we would from any other sector of society”.
Shadow education secretary Kate Green warned that if Mr Williamson did not “get a grip” on the “crisis” the current situation could “repeat itself across the country”.
“Students will be unable to continue their studies, families will be concerned for their wellbeings and universities will face serious financial difficulties,” she said.
When pressed on the Christmas plans in the Commons, Mr Williamson said a shift to online learning could be applied in “specific cases” to enable students return home at the end of term.
“But we envisage that to be a very small number of universities,” he said.
Ms Gyebi-Ababio welcomed Mr Williamson’s acknowledgement that “students should not be held to different laws and restrictions to the rest of the population, nor should we be blamed for the uptick in coronavirus cases”.
She added: “It is, however, extremely concerning that it has taken the Government so long to clarify this. Students’ basic legal rights must be upheld throughout the pandemic. To even have to argue this is, frankly, shocking.”
She argued the Government “must now give students the right to leave their courses and accommodation without financial detriment”.
In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, universities have been offering “blended learning” – a mix of online and face-to-face tuition.
The University and College Union (UCU) has called on the Prime Minister to ensure online tuition at universities “becomes the norm”.
Meanwhile, the NUS has argued for tuition fee refunds if the pandemic severely impacts the quality of students’ learning.
The Office for Students (OfS), the higher education regulator for England, said on Monday that universities should consider partial tuition fee refunds on “the circumstances for each student” rather than “adopt a blanket policy that refunds are not available”.
Boris Johnson said it was up to universities whether they offer a refund to students forced to self-isolate.
He told the media following a speech on skills opportunities on Tuesday: “As for your question about universities, that’s really a matter for them and their places of education.
“I hope that they can continue to get value from the courses they are being given.”
Picture: Students at Birley Halls student accommodation at Manchester Metropolitan University, thousands of students have been forced to self-isolate at the university following a surge in cases of Covid-19. (Peter Byrne/PA).