Confusion as universities told to pause student arrivals

In a letter from the Department of Education, Michelle Donelan, Minister of State for Universities has announced that the return of students not on practical courses should be paused until the week beginning the 25th January. This comes after further Tier 4 announcements this morning, triggered by quickly rising case rates.

The letter states that: “Given the rising infection rates, the return of all other students should be paused until at least the week commencing 25 January. The government will review this decision and provide further communication to providers in the week commencing 18 January. On the basis of this review, we will ask providers to plan for the staggered return of further students, prioritising those who will most benefit from in-person provision.”

Universities have been asked to restrict the number of practical students returning from the 4th January to those who are reading the following subjects:

  • Medicine and dentistry
  • Subjects allied to medicine/health
  • Veterinary science
  • Education
  • Social work
  • and courses that require Professional, Statutory and Regulatory Body (PSRB) assessments and other mandatory activity which has already been scheduled.

In a statement to Parliament this afternoon which focused primarily on schools and colleges, Williamson said that universities should prioritise the return of students who require practical learning to satisfy requirements for professional qualifications. He added that universities should offer COVID-19 tests to students upon their return to campus.

Secondary schools are set to remain closed until 18 January, and these closures may be extended for schools and colleges in areas with high transmission rates under a ‘last-resort’ contingency framework which will not apply to universities. Williamson did not provide further guidance on the return of students to university campuses.

However, there has been confusion over what this will mean for students returning for Hilary term. Balliol College told students in an email this afternoon that term will begin as planned. Upon returning to Oxford, Balliol students will receive a lateral flow test kit containing voluntary tests to be taken over the course of ten days.

The email read: “I hope you are all enjoying a break of some sorts, whatever Tier or country you may be in.

“As you probably all know, Oxford is now in Tier 4 and looks to remain there by the time term starts. However, we have been assured that term will indeed start and you should all return to oxford on the date you have arranged”.

“When you return you will find in your pigeonholes a lateral flow test kit – this will contain 3 tests. The first test should be taken as soon as you arrive back, the second test 3 days after the first test and the third test on the tenth day after you arrived in Oxford. These are voluntary tests so if you do not wish to take them, please leave the test kit in your pigeonhole. The University would like you to record all test results on the EAS system. For further information please go to You will be asked to complete the online training but I have also attached some step-by-step instructions.”

The University’s Coronavirus Status and Response page was updated on 31st December to address the changes: “The Government has notified all English universities of changes to its guidance for the return of students in the New Year. The University and colleges are currently working through the detail of these changes.”

“Updated guidance for all staff and students will be provided as soon as possible; guidance for students will appear on the Christmas vacation page.”


Cover Photo: Munich Security Conference under CC BY 3.0 DE

This piece was edited to include University response.