On Friday 20 November 2020, Sally Peck (Family, Education and Careers Editor) and Katie Russell posted an article in The Telegraph entitled 'Could universities close again? The new Covid-19 lockdown rules for students in England' in which they explored various aspects of the student experience during the coronavirus pandemic. ...

Could universities close again? The new Covid-19 lockdown rules for students in England

The university experience is very different for this year's batch of students

Since university students arrived on campus for the 2020-2021 academic year, their lives have been very different to what they were expecting. 

Smaller class sizes, online lectures, halls segregated by course topic, and only virtual freshers’ events; the impact of the pandemic on student life has been far-reaching and may last well into 2021.

Schools began to return in a phased manner from early June, but universities operate differently. As they are autonomous institutions, they have been developing their own pandemic road maps while adhering to guidelines set by the universities regulator. 

Below we answer the most common questions about universities’ plans to return to academic life after the coronavirus pandemic.

What are the new, additional rules during the second national lockdown?

Until December 2, additional rules apply to universities beyond social distancing. 

No extra-curricular meetings as part of clubs can take place during the lockdown.

Students must not go back and forth from their university halls and permanent homes during term time if they live at university

Can students come home for Christmas?

On November 11, the Department of Education announced a week long 'travel window' to allow students to go home for Christmas.

The 'travel window' will be in place from December 3-9 during which students can travel home on staggered departure dates that will be set by the universities.

This will need to be done in a way that does not overload the public transport system, although many students may travel via their own transport or be collected. Students must adhere to the Government’s travel guidance on the wearing of face coverings and limiting car sharing with only their household or bubble.

Students in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland returning to England must adhere to the guidelines for where they are living before returning home and on arrival follow the rules for their local area. Still, those returning to England who have not followed the four weeks of national restrictions should follow “at least 14 days of restricted contact either before or after return home to minimise their risk of transmission.”

Universities are to move learning online by 9 December so that students are able to continue their education. This means that they can continue to study at home. Anyone who has to remain on campus beyond this period still has access to learning.

Although the 'travel window' hopes to reduce the risk of students spreading Covid-19 many have raised concerns, including Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr. Jenny Harries. 

"The mass movement of students across the country," says Dr Harries, "at the end of term presents a really significant challenge within the COVID-19 response.”

Boris Johnson announced on Monday 9 November that mass, rapid testing is to be rolled out at universities to get students home safely for Christmas. De Montfort University students are among the first to try tests which give results in 20-30 minutes.

What does a typical week look like for students otherwise?

The lockdown guidance does not allow university students to go to one another's households and staying at home is encouraged except for education.

Universities are under orders to prohibit "private gatherings" in halls of residence that exceed the limits for gatherings in private households.

Students were asked to consider the possibility of them spreading the disease to older age groups, as figures show an increase in cases among 20-29 year-olds*. The Prime Minister warned that students who became ill would be asked not to travel home.

In a series of proposals for easing out of lockdown safely unveiled in June by Universities UK (UUK), a vice-Chancellor membership organisation, showed that young people’s social spheres would be far smaller than in a typical year.

Students live and study in bubbles composed of people from the same course in order to reduce transmission of coronavirus on campus. These groups share a timetable to restrict exposure to other bubbles, and freshers’ week mixers were virtual.

The University and College Union (UCU) has demanded that all non-essential teaching must move online.

Figures put together by the union suggest that there have been more than 35,000 cases on campuses since term started.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: “The health and safety of the country is being put at risk because of this government’s insistence that universities must continue with in-person teaching.”

The Government said universities should consider moving to increased levels of online learning where possible.

Even walking around campus has been different, with some universities imposing one-way pedestrian systems. 

Mr Johnson said: “My message to students is simple. Please, for the sake of your education, for your parents’ and your grandparents’ health, wash your hands, cover your face, make space, and don’t socially gather in groups of more than six now and when term starts.”

Are student halls different?

Halls of residence have been less crowded. Many universities were predicting a drop in international students thanks to Brexit. The coronavirus pandemic has kept even more away, so most pupils are UK residents already. 

Most universities are cleaning communal areas - kitchens, bathrooms, lounges - more regularly.

Some universities considered segregating halls based on course subjects, to reduce interaction with people from other bubbles.

What about freshers flu?

As Warwick University pointed out to its students, because the symptoms of freshers flu are similar to coronavirus, those who experienced mild symptoms would need to self-isolate until they are tested and the results return as negative. 

This means any students who have symptoms such as a persistent new cough, a loss of  taste or smell and a high temperature would need to self-isolate, along with those they have been in contact with. 

How much tuition is online?

Most universities held most lectures online. Many said that smaller groups of students would be able to meet in socially distanced tutorials.

In May, the University of Cambridge became the first British institution to announce that it would hold all lectures online for the entire 2020-21 academic year. Tutorials and smaller classes could take place in person, the university said, provided they could conform to social distancing requirements. The University of Manchester made its lectures online at least for the autumn semester.

By contrast, the University of Bolton said it intended to install “airport-style walk-through temperature scanners at every building entry” and make face masks compulsory in order to ensure that the campus was fully opened in September.

Universities are to move learning online by 9 December following the Christmas 'travel window.' 

Will it change with each term?

It is hard to say how long these restrictions will last; that depends entirely on how the pandemic progresses.

Universities UK addresses this uncertainty in its set of guidelines, Principles and Considerations: Emerging from Lockdown. “Restrictions relating to Covid-19 may continue for some time or be lifted and then be imposed again in response to further national or localised outbreaks,” the document stated. “The principles within this document will still apply, subject to the lifting of subsequent Covid-19 restrictions.”

Will fees be affected?

In April, Michelle Donelan, the higher education minister, announced that current students would not be entitled to refunds or compensation for their learning moving online if it was still of high quality.  

“We have already seen over the last few months courses being delivered online and virtually at an amazing quality and degree and I know the efforts that staff across the sector have made to be able to facilitate that,” she said.

Not everyone is happy with that. A QS survey revealed 75 per cent of students think tuition fees ought to be discounted if they have to study online this year.

Can I get a fee refund?


The Department for Education has said that if universities are “unable to facilitate adequate online tuition then it would be unacceptable for students to be charged for any additional terms”.

In order to pursue a refund, you would have to complain directly to your university. If that is unsuccessful, you may appeal, using a “completions procedure form” from your university with the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) in England or Wales, or Scottish Public Services Ombudsman or Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman, if your university is in one of those countries.

Thousands of students have demanded refunds of tuition fees, fearing coronavirus will ruin their university experiences.

More universities are telling students that all teaching will be online-only.  

Many students are disappointed by this, arguing they are getting bad value for money, while more than 3,000 have been trapped in their halls under recent university lockdowns.

Hundreds of thousands of people signed an online petition to refund tuition fees for 2020-21 due to Covid-19.

Are the numbers of students down? How many people are deferring their places?

Universities have seen a downturn in new students this year. A survey from the University and College Union found that 71 per cent of applicants preferred to delay starting university if it meant they would get more face-to-face teaching. 

Independent research from the University of Leicester found 41 per cent of 2,000 surveyed UK students considered deferring their places until 2021 because of uncertainty over online courses and safety.

Yet the ability to defer was not guaranteed. The University of Oxford, for example, said it did not encourage it: “Subject to any public health conditions still being in force, we are expecting to welcome a full cohort of new undergraduates in October 2020, so we will not routinely support requests for deferral. Any offer holders with particular, verifiable reasons to wish to defer their place should contact the college which made their offer or open-offer to discuss this.”

Each university and each college at Oxford or Cambridge have considered deferrals on a case-by-case basis, so it’s best to contact your university directly.

If students defer their entries, this could spell trouble for universities - especially because their intake of international students was lower this year. Universities expect to lose £2.5bn in funding next year due to the loss of international students (who pay higher fees), who are unable to travel to the UK.

What is happening around the world?

The chancellor of California State University, a 23-campus system of higher education in the US state, said it would be cancelling classes for the autumn semester, with all instruction taking place online. Other American universities said that they intended to re-open their campuses this autumn, but they were also making back-up online plans.

Other American universities are shortening their autumn semesters, cancelling the mid-term break and sending students home for winter break at Thanksgiving, in late November, in order to avoid the beginning of the flu season. Some scientists have predicted that there will be a second spike of coronavirus cases when flu season hits.

And in Europe, even as schools have re-opened with social distancing measures across the continent, universities have found themselves at the back of the queue in terms of priorities. In part, this is because online teaching at a tertiary level has found relative success.

Will students be tested for coronavirus?

Mass testing is to be rolled out at universities to get students home safely for Christmas.

The Government’s strategy involves setting up large scale asymptomatic testing programmes at universities so that students with a negative test result can safely travel home.

De Montfort University are part of the pilot project. Students are among the first to try tests which give results in 20-30 minutes.

Cambridge offered all students living in college accommodation a weekly coronavirus test after term began on October 8.

Exeter University announced it was teaming up with commercial test provider Halo to ensure same-day testing at its campuses in Exeter and Cornwall.

Cambridge said it would go beyond Government guidance and offer testing to students even if they showed no symptoms.

Sample swabs, from the nose and throat, will be pooled by college household, allowing the university to reduce the number of tests required to some 2,000 per week. If a pooled household test is positive, students in the household will be offered individual tests.

The University of Exeter said it would work with Halo, the UK's first commercial provider of saliva-based Covid tests, to offer a simple and fast means of both finding cases and reassuring students who fall ill but are not infected.

"The university has put in place a full suite of measures to protect the whole community including providing face coverings, digital thermometers, Covid-secure buildings and protocols for staff and student behaviour," the university said.

The university has also set up a Rapid Response Hub for all students and staff to report symptoms and request tests, with extra investment made in campus health centres so that students will be able to get medical help if they need it.

*The graphic referred to in the text, along with links to further reading, is available in the original article:

Could universities close again? The new Covid-19 lockdown rules for students in England