Gavin Williamson
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Gavin Williamson to announce a phased return for students to English universities from 8 March

Gavin Williamson is set to announce phased university return from 8 March, although most students are unlikely to return this term.

Vice-chancellors have warned that many students will not see a return to face-to-face teaching before summer.

When the government announced their plans for unwinding the third lockdown on 22 February, Gavin Williamson is expected to announce that some university students will return to face-to-face teaching.

Final-year students studying practical subjects will be the first to return to face-to-face teaching. Students taking other subjects are expected to follow soon after.

Many students have expressed dissatisfaction with the online teaching and learning experience this year. 

Schools are also expected to return from 8 March, but no dates or plans for unwinding the lockdown have been published yet.

Ministers are reportedly anxious to avoid a repeat of scenes from last autumn where thousands of students who had travelled to university were forced to isolate in campus accommodation with widespread Covid-19 outbreaks on university campuses.

Michelle Donelan, the Universities Minister, has said that schools and universities would follow the same roadmap with data being looked at up to 15 February, with a plan to announce how universities would reopen on 22 February.

From 8 March, more students will be able to go back, should that be what we decide, and that does include higher education students

– Michelle Donelan

The Universities Minister said: “From 8 March, more students will be able to go back, should that be what we decide, and that does include higher education students.”

Priority is expected to be given to final-year undergraduate students or taught postgraduate degrees in practical subjects, such as lab-based science courses and performing arts.

Many students may struggle to return before the Easter holidays at the end of March when teaching halts for many courses before exam season.

Currently only students on laboratory-based courses such as medical and veterinary science, and courses deemed important such as nursing, social work, and teaching, are able to receive face-to-face teaching.

Some universities, such as the London School of Economics (LSE), have already announced the rest of the academic year will be online. Donelan said the government “will be giving them the option to alter those plans”.

While face-to-face teaching has not been allowed for the vast majority of students many universities have reported that students have been “returning to campus in droves”.

One university is said to have about 70% of its student population on or around campus, in part due to a high number of students on exempt courses. Many others estimate that 30% to 40% of their students have returned, with some having over 50% of their students back around campus.

Professor Peter Mathieson, the vice-chancellor of the University of Edinburgh, said: “Some students have voted with their feet, it’s been reported by just about all the universities I’ve heard from, Russell Group and elsewhere. It’s interesting, it reflects the fact students start to identify university as their new home.”

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