University campuses in England will not reopen until mid-May, ministers are expected to confirm, depriving up to a million students of more face-to-face tuition after a year of disruption due to the pandemic.
The further delay will come as a major blow for students who say they have already missed out on their education, as well as much of the university experience that goes with it, while continuing to pay tuition and accommodation costs.
University leaders had hoped to persuade the government to ease Covid restrictions in higher education sooner, in line with the lifting of other lockdown measures across England this week to allow the reopening of pubs, hairdressers and zoos.
Ministers are understood to have rejected their pleas, however, favouring a later return, meaning the majority of students are unlikely to be back on campus before 17 May, when most universities will have already finished their teaching year, with only assessments remaining in the final weeks.
In a letter to Boris Johnson, Prof Julia Buckingham, the president of Universities UK, which represents the sector, argued it was “illogical” to open shops, personal care businesses, gyms, spas, zoos, theme parks, public libraries and community centres on 12 April, yet prevent students from returning to their studies.
“This is another blow for those students who have been studying online since early December, and you will be aware of many studies highlighting the impact on students’ mental health, wellbeing and development,” she wrote last week.
Sir David Bell, the vice-chancellor of Sunderland University, said if confirmed, a delay until 17 May= was “deeply disappointing and, frankly bizarre”.
“I support very strongly the reopening of pubs, shops and hairdressers, many of which will be used by students. But then to deny the very same students the right to continue their studies on campus points to incoherence of decision making at the very heart of government.”
Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, the National Union of Students vice-president for higher education, said: “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 now learning from cramped homes and bedrooms.”
The University and College Union supported a further delay, but called for courses to stay online until September.
The UCU general secretary, Jo Grady, said: “After a year of dithering and delay from ministers, it now looks like they have belatedly listened to our demands and will keep learning online until at least 17 May. But restarting in-person activities in mid-May, with only weeks of the academic year left, makes absolutely no sense as most lectures and seminars will already have finished.”
There has been growing anger among students over the decision to delay their return to campus. A parliamentary petition accusing the government of having “trivialised our education” and asking for all students to be permitted to return at the start of summer term has gained more than 4,000 signatures.
Many students voiced their dismay with the government on social media. One tweet from a recent graduate that was retweeted 65,000 times said “the fact you can have 10,000 people in a stadium before you can have in-person lectures epitomises how poorly university students have been treated during the pandemic”.
Although many students have defied government guidance to return to their term-time accommodation before campuses fully reopen, there is widespread frustration that they still cannot access essential facilities for their courses or receive in-person teaching. Some universities have also introduced onerous requirements for students to demonstrate evidence that they need to return early to their halls of residence.
Olivia Winnifrith, a student at Oxford University, said she was asked to share sensitive medical data and get a letter from her doctor to justify an early return to her room. “I am academically significantly behind, as some books simply cannot be found online. Mentally, I have never been worse, my social life is so incredibly depleted having missed out on so many milestones. I feel utterly hopeless about the future,” she said.
Frustrated students may seek to claim compensation for a year that many feel has not lived up to promises through the Office of the Independent Adjudicator. The regulator published example case studies in March that indicated it would offer students refunds even where this is not required by law and is developing proposals that would make it easier for large groups of students to make a single compensation claim.
Universities are said to be worried that high numbers of successful claims would threaten their financial stability.
The anticipated government decision to delay the reopening means that students will be unable to attend some of the catch-up activities universities have been planning for the final term, especially in areas such as employability and skills that are harder to deliver online.
“Students will lose the chance to access on-campus facilities and services such as libraries, and will miss out on many of the development activities and the much-needed peer-to-peer interaction which will help tackle isolation and loneliness,” said Vanessa Wilson, the chief executive of University Alliance, which represents a number of institutions including Coventry University and the University of Brighton.
The Department for Education was unable to confirm arrangements for universites to reopen. A spokesperson said previously: “Students on practical and creative courses started returning from 8 March, and we will be reviewing options for the timing of the return of all remaining students by the end of the Easter holidays.
“Decisions will take into account the need to protect progress across the wider roadmap out of the pandemic, including the spread of the virus in communities and pressures on the NHS.”