Words by Jake Nordland

The return of most university students to campuses and in-person teaching has been left uncertain after the government’s 22 February announcement on the easing of lockdown restrictions in England. 

The government announced that most university students cannot yet come back, and will have to wait for a review to be conducted “by the end of the Easter holidays” into options on the timing of their return.

But universities can allow students on practical-based courses to return to face-to-face teaching from 8 March, with twice weekly testing available on campuses for any students that do return. 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in his speech to the House of Commons that “students on university courses requiring practical teaching, specialist facilities or onsite assessments” would qualify for an 8 March return.

“But all others will need to continue learning online, and we will review the options for when they can return by the end of the Easter Holidays”, he continued.

A government statement says the review will “take account of the latest data” and will be part of a wider roadmap for the further easing of restrictions, with students given a week’s notice ahead of the return.

In a university-wide email update from Student Communications, Sussex announced that in-person activity could resume from 8 march for “certain courses with practical elements” within the following schools: Life Sciences, Engineering and Informatics, and Media Arts & Humanities.

The email warned students not to return to campus unless they were contacted directly by their School and permitted to return.

Students are currently only allowed to return to university accommodation in ‘exceptional situations’ that would be improved by moving back, including health or safety reasons or a lack of access to appropriate accommodation, facilities, or study spaces.

Asked for comment on which specific courses within these schools could resume, a university spokesperson said: “Schools are adhering to the government’s latest advice to Universities in terms of which courses may resume in-person teaching and learning from the 8 March, in addition to the existing in-person teaching in BSMS and Education and Social Work.”

“This advice states that the government is ‘now advising providers [Universities] that they can resume in-person teaching and learning for students who are studying practical or practice-based (including creative arts) subjects and require specialist equipment and facilities from 8 March’.”

The spokesperson did not comment when asked who had the power to determine which courses counted as practical and could therefore qualify for a return.

An email to students in the Media Arts & Humanities School, seen by The Badger, revealed that in-person teaching for practical courses would focus on “provision of facilities/equipment, facilitation of project work, and small groups doing independent learning, with lectures and seminars generally continuing online”.

It added that “for most students, and I know this is disappointing, there is no change at this point. We would ask you to remain where you are currently in residence, unless there are particular wellbeing reasons for relocating”.

The announcements from the government and the university were met with anger by some at Sussex over their lack of clarity.

The Badger spoke to Karoline, a 1st year History student, who said: “I understand why [we can’t go back] but it’s still kinda disappointing. I’m a first year and I’ve met no one but my flat at uni so I feel disconnected a bit from the uni – I don’t feel a part of it”.

“I think they should make a decision now or at least after 1-2 weeks of the schools back. I don’t think they should leave it until the last minute”.

The Officer team at the University of Sussex Students’ Union told The Badger: “We were disappointed that the government announcements mentioned very little about university students, other than that this would be reviewed after Easter.”

“This government has continued to ignore the struggles of university students over the course of the pandemic. We recently found out that university students in the UK have wasted over £1bn on empty accommodation this year … These are the issues which we need our university to show some leadership on, and we need the government to increase student support.”

The news of the delayed student return comes after a report by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in January found that 40% of students who had returned home for the winter break had already returned to their term-time accommodation.

However, the ONS revealed only 33% of university students travelled home to friends or family from university accommodation over the break. 37% had stayed in their university accommodation, and a further 30% were already living at home.

In a webinar for the Higher Education Policy Institute last Monday, Sussex’s Vice-Chancellor Adam Tickell revealed that 2000 Sussex students had already returned to campus accommodation, about half of the 4500 students that live on-campus.

In the talk, Tickell also claimed that Sussex is trying to resume some face-to-face teaching for all students by the end of the year, but that they wouldn’t know if it was possible until “really quite late in the day”.

Tickell added: “There’s relatively little teaching that happens after Easter so we’re working on whether we can have a meaningful package for students when they come back”.

“It’s really tricky but we know that students have already returned to their campuses and their university towns even though they’ve been advised by the government not to, so because of that we would like them to be able to engage in learning and in other activities on our campus”.

Lucy, a Biomedical Science student in her 1st year, told The Badger that the university “shouldn’t be encouraging mass movement in a pandemic for the sake of one or two hours of in person teaching a week”.

“Mass movement especially to and from rural areas puts people and infrastructure at risk. If you’ve been at home until now this term, you should if possible stay at home- you can study there”.

The university stressed that any students who cannot go back to university will not be disadvantaged academically: “All students’ learning outcomes will still be met remotely and all assessments will continue to be online for the remainder of this academic year”.

Picture Credit: Number 10

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