Universities may end face-to-face lectures early so students can self-isolate and make it home for Christmas, education secretary Gavin Williamson has said.
Speaking in the Commons, Williamson said in-person lectures would continue where possible, but where there were outbreaks students should have time to self-isolate to curb the spread of Covid-19 when they returned to see older relatives.
It comes amid a growing row over restrictions on university students in the pandemic, with many fearing a huge mental health impact for young people.
Williamson admitted it would be unfair to force students to be apart from their families over the festive season and said new guidance setting out “essential” measures would be issued in the next few days.
Options on the table for campuses grappling with cases of the virus include universities stopping teaching early and asking young people to self-isolate strictly.
It comes after the Office for Students recommended that some universities should offer partial refunds to students who are not getting value for money as a result of the pandemic.
But Labour’s shadow education secretary Kate Green said the situation remains “desperately worrying”, with students at unis hit by outbreaks who are isolating with strangers in cramped halls of residence.
She said: “Across the country, many find themselves isolated in cramped accommodation, parents worried about their well-being and safety, and university staff who have worked so hard over the summer to prepare are anxious and angry that the government didn’t keep its part of the bargain.
“They’ve all been let down by the government just as it let down many of these same students with its handling of exam results last month.
“What students, staff and their families need now is reassurance.”
Williamson acknowledged “some anxiety about the impact safety measures will have”, especially over Christmas.
He said: “Students are important members of the communities that they choose to study in. We expect them to follow the same guidance as those same local communities.
“We are going to work with universities to make sure that all students are supported to return home safely and spend Christmas with their loved ones if they choose to do so.”
He added that the new guidance would minimise the risk of transmission and that students should not face stricter measures than others in society
He said: “Where there are specific circumstances that warrant it, there may be a requirement for some students to self-isolate at the end of term and we will be working with the sector to ensure this will be possible, including ending in-person learning if that is deemed to be necessary.”
Williamson, who has been also been under pressure over his handling of the A-levels results fiasco, insisted universities were prepared, and underlined that only students who had symptoms should get a test.
He said: “Where students choose to stay in their university accommodation over Christmas, universities should continue making sure they’re safe and well looked after.
“Of course, it is inevitable there will be cases of Covid occurring in universities just as there are in our wider communities and the constituencies that we represent.
“But we believe that universities are very well prepared to handle any outbreaks as they arise and we have been working with the sector and Public Health England to make sure that they have every support and assistance they need should this happen.”