Students on all university courses in England will be able to return from 17 May, the government has announced.
It means a return to campuses for about a million students, who have only been able to study online since the Christmas holidays.
Since the start of the year, only students on practical, hands-on courses have been allowed in-person teaching.
Students will be offered Covid tests when they return for face-to-face classes, “no earlier than 17 May”.
University leaders had been lobbying for an earlier return – saying it was unfair to keep restrictions on campuses when shops were open.
Tattoos but no tutors
About half of students have been studying off campus – and all students will now return to a mix of face-to-face and online classes.
But the mid-May start is likely to raise further questions about refunds on tuition fees and rent, for what will now be a reduced term before the summer break.
Graham Galbraith, vice chancellor of the University of Portsmouth, said delaying for another month until 17 May was “unfathomable”.
“That this date is after many universities will have finished their teaching year shows a government with a cavalier disregard for details. This isn’t good enough,” he said.
“Students can now buy a book on British history in Waterstones and discuss it with a tattoo artist,” – but still they could not go into a university and discuss with their lecturer, said Prof Galbraith.
But the UCU lecturers’ union, which opposed an earlier return, says it would be more “honest” to say many courses would start in the autumn.
“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,” said UCU leader, Jo Grady.
- In Wales, students returned this week, with a mix of face-to-face and online study.
- In Scotland, some students have had in-person classes, but from 17 May universities will “return to a more blended model of learning”. Although some universities in Scotland end their term in late May.
- In Northern Ireland, hands-on courses have been taught in-person, but other courses are expected to remain online for the rest of the term.
‘Forgotten’ in lockdown
Unlike the mass return of England’s school children in March, universities in England have had a patchwork return – prompting criticisms that students were “forgotten” in the plans for leaving lockdown.
Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, the National Union of Students’ vice president, said students had been “ignored”.
“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,” she said.
About half of students were able to go back for in-person teaching at some stage during last term – for courses such as medicine and some science degrees which required hands-on training.
But students, on courses such as the arts, humanities, business and law, have been waiting for a return date – with 17 May about five months after many of them went home for the Christmas holidays.
There are some other universities which have already decided to stay online for all this academic year.
And even without in-person teaching, many students seem to have gone back to their university accommodation – with a survey from the Higher Education Policy Institute saying about two thirds of students had been in their term-time addresses.