Students could be offered face-to-face lessons after Easter and they may graduate with classmates in small ceremonies, a vice-chancellor has said.
Professor Adam Tickell, the University of Sussex’s vice-chancellor, said he is hoping to bring students back in the summer term and offer them a “meaningful package” of on-campus learning and activities when they return.
Speaking on an online panel of university leaders, Prof Tickell said thousands of students had already returned to the university’s own accommodation despite the majority of teaching remaining online since December.
His comments come after the Government announced that university students on practical courses in England will be able to return to campus for in-person teaching from next month.
But for all remaining students, the Government said it will review options for pupils to return to face-to-face lessons by the end of the Easter holidays.
Already a number of UK universities, including the London School of Economics (LSE) and St Andrews, have decided to move the majority of their lessons online for the rest of the academic year amid the pandemic.
But Prof Tickell said: “I do hope that we’re able to have students back both in terms of practical classes from March 8, which will be allowed in England, but also from after Easter.
“But that won’t be known until really quite late in the day and there’s relatively little teaching that happens after Easter so we’re working on whether we can have a meaningful package for students when they come back.
“It’s really tricky but we know that students have already returned to their campuses and their university towns, even though they’ve been advised by the Government not to, so because of that we would like them to be able to engage in learning and in other activities on our campus.”
The Government told the majority of university students in England to stay where they were when the lockdown was announced on January 4.
But students who need additional mental health support, or who do not have access to appropriate study spaces or facilities in their vacation accommodation, are allowed to return to term-time accommodation.
An Office for National Statistics (ONS) survey, published in January, found that 40% of the students who chose to leave campus for the Christmas break had already returned to their university accommodation.
At the webinar, hosted by the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) think tank, Prof Tickell said around 2,000 of Sussex students had returned to the university’s accommodation out of approximately 4,500 students.
When asked whether in-person graduations could be on the cards amid the Government’s plans to remove all restrictions on June 21, Prof Tickell added: “We may have small school-based or subject-based graduations.
“I don’t think we’re going to be in a position where we can have large graduation ceremonies because I don’t think it will be safe enough to do that.
“We want to have meaningful engagement for students, but we’re going to have to work out what goes on as we go along.”
Asked about the appointment of Conservative peer Lord Wharton of Yarm as chairman of England’s independent higher education regulator, Prof Tickell said: “I worry about it. I think it is important to have a clear distinction between the state and the form of regulation.”
Nick Hillman, director of Hepi, said Prof Tickell’s example of around 50% of students already in residence despite the lockdown was “absolutely typical” as he said so many students are already back at their university accommodation.
He added: “Universities cannot stop them from returning as they are adults and most don’t live in university-owned accommodation and those that do might be on courses that are still teaching face-to-face or be making use of the caveats or have been in residence all the way through.”
A spokesman for the Russell Group, which represents the most selective institutions in the UK, said they estimate that more than half of all students have returned to their term-time address – or were already here in January as they stayed put over the Christmas break – across their universities.
A Universities UK (UUK) spokesperson said: “Decisions about more students returning to university in England will be based on the latest public health situation, but the Government supports our view that face-to-face teaching is important for the mental, emotional and educational wellbeing of students.”