The government is putting the mental health and wellbeing of young people at risk by refusing to set a date when students can return to university campuses, university vice-chancellors and students have warned.
Universities still haven’t been told when the government will allow them to resume face-to-face teaching for about 1 million students who have been forced to learn remotely during lockdown.
Vice-chancellors – who spent last month expecting that campuses would be allowed to fully reopen on Monday, at the same time as pubs and gyms – now fear that students are being left out of the government’s roadmap out of lockdown, leaving universities “in limbo”.
In a joint letter with the National Union of Students and the mental health charity Student Minds, shared with the Observer today, they call on the government to “make and communicate its decision” in order to provide students with “certainty” and support their health and wellbeing.
Professor Julia Buckingham, vice-chancellor of Brunel University and president of Universities UK, which represents university vice-chancellors, said students who have been learning remotely are being treated “very unfairly” compared with other groups of young people who have been allowed to resume face-to-face learning.
“Our students seem to have been left out,” she said. “We’re very concerned about how this is impacting on their mental health and wellbeing. We know many are struggling with financial hardship, because of course there aren’t the part-time jobs they normally have. And there is good evidence that their feelings of isolation and loneliness have increased. This is obviously contributing to their anxiety levels, at this very tense time of year, when everyone’s worried about exams. I feel desperately sorry for students right now.”
She said the way the government has behaved – making no mention of when students could return to universities in its announcements about the loosening of restrictions this week – was “very disappointing”. “I find it quite extraordinary that from Monday we can all go on a self-catering holiday anywhere in England but students can’t return to their own self-catering accommodation.” She pointed out that the reopening of both schools and further education colleges for face-to-face teaching has taken place and was prioritised in the roadmap. “We do feel left behind.”
The government had previously announced it would “review” whether all university students would be allowed back for in-person teaching “by the end of the Easter holidays”. “To me, Easter finished last Monday evening,” said Buckingham. She had been hoping universities would be given a week’s notice by the government that campuses would be allowed to open on 12 April. “Students do need warning if they’re going to come back to campus – they have to book travel arrangements. Staff need warning too. The longer we wait, the more challenging this is for everyone and the less opportunity there will be for students to get the support they need.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said the government was “committed to getting all students back into university as soon as the public health situation allows”, adding that some students on specific practical and creative courses had started returning to campuses in March.
The Observer understands that a decision on the issue is likely to be announced by the end of this week.
Buckingham urged the government to allow students to return.
“Please bring back students,” she said. “Please recognise the very, very difficult time they’re having and please support them. They have responded to extraordinary challenges over the past 12 months and I think they have been remarkable. I think the government owes it to them, now, to support them in the best way possible – and that is to allow them to come back to campus and get on with their learning.”