Words by Jake Nordland

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson is expected to announce plans for the return of students to universities in England on 22 February. 

The upcoming plans are said to introduce a phased return starting as early as 8 March for some students, according to The Guardian. 

Final-year students taking practical-based degrees are expected to be the first cohort of students to go back, trailed by other subjects and year groups. 

Asked about the return to face-to-face teaching, a spokesperson for the University of Sussex said: “Semester 2 teaching will remain in its current remote mode (except for those cohorts currently allowed in the government guidance) until existing government restrictions are changed”. 

“Currently, we anticipate that this may be from the week beginning 8 March onwards, but will not be earlier than this”. 

The spokesperson said the university would provide students with further details on the return in the week beginning 22 February. They did not comment when asked whether face-to-face teaching would be resumed for all students before the end of the teaching term this summer. 

Universities Minister Michelle Donelan has previously said the government will look at data up until the 15 February, before announcing their decision on the 22nd. She told The Tab that getting students back is their “number one priority”, and that higher education will follow the same roadmap as schools. 

However, both Ms Donelan and PM Boris Johnson have expressed caution, warning that while they expect schools and universities to open, the final decision is not definite and will depend on Covid-19 data. 

In the interview, Ms Donelan said: “[we] will be looking at data including death rates, the virus rate, the vaccination programme, and the pressure on the NHS. Then the decision will be announced on the 22nd February”. 

And in a Downing Street press conference on 3 February, Mr Johnson said that educational institutions will only re-open on 8 March “if the data allow”. 

Some unions have advised against a hasty return to face-to-face teaching. Jo Grady of the University and College Union told The Guardian: “The priority right now must be to keep as much teaching as possible online for the rest of the academic year”.

He warned ministers and universities not to reopen campuses simply to stave off financial pressures, citing the lessons learnt from last term. 

The start of the academic year saw a hasty return of pupils to universities, and has since been criticized after coronavirus cases spiked on campuses across the country. 

A senior University of Sussex lecturer estimated that roughly 14,000 Covid-positive students returned to universities across the UK at the start of the first term. 

Students at Sussex and elsewhere also launched rent strikes last year in protest at being lured back, only to be stuck with virtual learning and high accommodation rents. 

Mr Williamson’s 22 February announcement will come just weeks after multiple Vice-Chancellors, including the University of Sussex’s Adam Tickell, signed an open letter addressed to the Education Secretary, the PM, and Chancellor Rishi Sunak requesting greater government support for students. 

The letter details the “unprecedented” pressures faced by students amidst the pandemic, and asks for further avenues of financial support. It also highlights the “extraordinary mental health challenges” besetting students, and raises concerns over the lack of equal access to technology. 

Mr Williamson’s announcement is set to be made on the same day as the government outlines its wider roadmap for the easing of lockdown restrictions in England. 

Mr Johnson is expected to hold a highly anticipated press conference on 22 February detailing plans to lift the nation-wide lockdown restrictions that have been in place since 5 January this year. 

Restrictions are predicted to be lifted gradually to allow scientists to measure the impact of any changes and adjust policy accordingly. 

But Mr Johnson is facing pressure from forces within the Conservative party to ease restrictions more quickly in a bid to help boost the economy.

Picture Credit: Number 10

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