Majority of students concerned about return to university in January – poll

The majority of university students are concerned about the return to campus in January, a survey has suggested.

Nearly a quarter (22%) of students said they do not understand the latest Government guidance about the end of term and Christmas travel, according to a poll by a think tank.

The findings, published by the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi), come as university students across England are allowed to travel back to their families for Christmas from Thursday.

Many universities are rolling out mass asymptomatic coronavirus testing this week in a bid to get students home safely ahead of the festive break.

On Wednesday – just hours before the start of the “student travel window” in England – the Government released its guidance on how students should be brought back to campus in January.

More than half of students (54%) said they are “very concerned” or “quite concerned” about how the return to university in the new year will operate, according to the Hepi survey of 1,075 students.

The poll was carried out before the Department for Education (DfE) published advice for universities to stagger the return of students over five weeks after Christmas to reduce the transmission of Covid-19.

Medical students and those on placements or practical courses with a need for in-person teaching in England should return to university between January 4 and January 18, according to the guidance.

But the remaining students should be offered online lessons from the beginning of term to protect students, staff and local communities.

The survey, from Hepi and YouthSight in November during the lockdown, suggests 49% of students were not receiving any face-to-face teaching.

A third of students (33%) said they currently spend all or almost all of their time in their accommodation while a further 28% said they spend most of their time in their accommodation.

The poll found that more students are satisfied with the online learning that has replaced in-person lessons –  59% said they were either “very satisfied” or “quite satisfied” in November, compared to 42% in June.

It found that nearly three in five (58%) students said they consider their mental health to be in a worse state since the beginning of the pandemic.

Less than than half (42%) of students said they are “very satisfied” or “quite satisfied” with the provision of mental health services at their higher education institution.

Rachel Hewitt, director of policy and advocacy at Hepi, said: “Student mental health has been an issue since well before this crisis.

“However, with more than half of students saying the pandemic has negatively impacted their mental health, it will be critical that universities continue to provide the necessary support to their students and monitor levels of poor mental health and wellbeing among the student body.”

University and College Union (UCU) general secretary Jo Grady said: “It is deeply concerning that so many students remain unclear about the latest government guidance on travelling home for Christmas and plans for a return in January.

“UCU has warned that mass movement of students will lead to spikes in infection and this will only be exacerbated if measures to make travelling safer are poorly communicated.”

A Universities UK spokeswoman said: “Universities understand that this continues to be a difficult time for students. We are working closely with Government to ensure that universities can safely welcome back students to campuses for blended teaching, learning and support in the new year.

“Universities have been working hard to transform support services to meet the challenges of the pandemic, moving counselling and advice online, building digital communities and developing new services to identify those in difficulty and to meet new needs.”

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