LONDON: Universities across the UK are preparing to reopen for the start of the Autumn semester this month amid the updated Covid-19 government guidance, which limits large gatherings of more than six people across campuses.
UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock told the House of Commons on Thursday that he wants students to be careful not to pass on coronavirus to more vulnerable groups of their parents and grandparents.
“If you are a student who is about to return to university or go to university for the first time, then please, for the sake of your education and your parents’ and grandparents’ health, follow the rules and don’t gather in groups of more than six people,” Hancock said in a statement to Parliament.
“The Department for Education has published the updated guidance for universities on how they can operate in a Covid secure way. This includes a clear request not to send students home in the event of an outbreak in order to avoid spreading the virus across the country,” he said.
The first few weeks of what is the start of a new academic year in September is traditionally marked by freshers meets and gatherings.
However, this year there will be an effort to limit student numbers as much as possible in order to control the spread of coronavirus, as the number of cases in the country began to rise once again since last week.
Under the Department for Education guidelines, students with coronavirus symptoms are told to “self-isolate in their current accommodation” such as halls of residence.
All other residents in the same household must also isolate for 14 days, and be provided with support by their institution.
The guidance recommends the use of disciplinary measures in the event of student non-compliance, as well as suggestions to combat the spread of the virus such as “reducing the sizes of casts in drama” and considering if “some tuition in certain subjects can be conducted outside”.
Hancock’s plea for caution in the Commons came alongside speeches by the UK Education Secretary Gavin Williamson and Universities Minister Michelle Donelan, urging university staffers and students to follow the guidance to try and limit the spread of infections.
“Let’s be honest, these months have been incredibly difficult, for everyone involved,” said Donelan.
“The next few months will be very different for you and I want to thank you for all the hard work that you have done to ensure that social distancing measures are introduced, plus blended learning and Covid-secure measures. We agree with you – it is absolutely imperative that both students and staff are kept safe,” she said in a speech to members of Universities UK, representing most of the UK’s universities.
In his address to vice-chancellors, Williamson highlighted the extra funding being granted to universities as they struggle through the Covid-19 lockdown imposed in March.
“I do acknowledge that the pressures providers are facing as a result of Covid-19 are substantial and some may face serious financial difficulties as a result. That is why my department is working closely with the sector, the Office for Students and across government to monitor and fully understand the financial risks that providers are facing and help them access support where necessary, and have established a restructuring regime to support universities as a last resort, if it proves necessary,” he said.
In reference to visa changes unveiled for international students on Thursday, he added: “We now have a world-class student visa offer befitting our world-class higher education sector – this will only improve once the Student Route is launched later this year, and student visa processes are further streamlined.”
The route, to apply to all overseas students including Indians from October 5, will mean students require a total of 70 points to be granted a visa to study at a UK university under the new points-based visa regime. They will achieve the required points if they can demonstrate that they have an offer from an approved educational institution, speak English and are able to support themselves during their studies in the UK. The UK Home Office says the new route will simplify the existing Tier 4 Student Visa application process.