University students on practical courses set to return for in-person teaching

Taz Ali, PA

University students on practical courses are set to return to campus for in-person teaching next month – a measure which has been welcomed by sector leaders.

On Monday, the Government set out its four-stage road map to lift coronavirus restrictions in England, which will begin with all pupils returning to schools and colleges from March 8.

Also from that date, university students on practical courses, such as science and engineering, who need to access specialist facilities and equipment can return to in-person teaching and learning.

According to the road map, research labs and libraries can be kept open if needed, with campuses to provide twice-weekly coronavirus testing to staff and students.

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For all remaining university students, the Government said it will review, by the end of the Easter holidays, options for pupils to return to campus, with students and institutions to be given a week’s notice ahead of any return.

Professor Julia Buckingham, president of Universities UK, which represents 140 universities in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, said the announcement was a “long-awaited boost” for students.

She said: “Universities look forward to welcoming these students back to Covid-secure campuses from March 8, where safety measures including serial asymptomatic testing and social distancing will be in place to ensure the risk of transmission remains low.

“While today’s news is positive for some students, it will be disappointing for others that had hoped the Government would have allowed them to return.

“There will also need to be a further focus on supporting students’ mental health and wellbeing in the weeks ahead.”

Dr Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group, which represents the most selective universities in the UK, also welcomed the news.

He commented: “Our members have worked hard to make campuses Covid-secure, with twice-weekly testing and very low overall infection rates this year – even with students from high-priority courses already back on campus.”

He urged the Government to consider whether more students can return to in-person teaching at the road map’s first review point in early April.

He said: “An earlier return will be particularly beneficial for the mental health and well-being of students.”

University Alliance chief executive Vanessa Wilson also hailed the announcement, adding that a significant proportion of courses delivered by the association’s universities are practical and practice-based.

She said: “Our members are fully committed to supporting the safe and responsible return of their students and will take steps to ensure these learners are supported to complete their learning, projects and performances; whilst ensuring incidences of Covid cases and transmission on campus continue to remain low.”

While the trade union University and College Union (UCU) accepted that some courses needed in-person learning, it cautioned for teaching to remain online wherever possible and described any wider reopening of university campuses from March 8 as “irresponsible”.

It urged institutions to agree new risk assessments that take account of increased transmission rates of new variants, ventilation, personal protective equipment (PPE) for employees and how to support workers who need to shield.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: “Pushing students and staff back onsite increases the risk of more Covid outbreaks and threatens to undo the country’s hard work to get infection rates down.”

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