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DfE publishes staggering advice for universities on students return in 2021

Advice is out from DfE on the return to campus in 2021. Jim Dickinson and David Kernohan unpick the implications.
This article is more than 3 years old

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

So here it is. Look to the future now – it’s only just begun.

Just in time for the “student travel window” to open (though not actually in time for universities to interpret it so that the inevitable deluge of students’ questions can be meaningfully answered), the Department for Education (DfE) has published its guidance for higher education providers on students returning next term.

There’s also – for collectors – a box set edition that also contains a letter from Michelle Donelan (that notably yet again thanks everyone involved in higher education for their efforts except students’ unions) and an FAQ version of the guidance from the Office for Students, the guidance equivalent of those annoying mobile ringtones you used to be able to buy resembling your favourite hit singles.

And before we dig in here, this is DfE guidance for English higher education providers. We’re expecting guidance from the devolved nations to emerge in the coming days.

Nothing going on but the rent

The headline? DfE “expects” most students to go home (“to their parents”, of course) over the next week, and will ask universities to ask some of them to not return for nine weeks. They will, however, still have to pay their rent over that period.

So for some students, next term on campus will be approximately six weeks long. For which, obviously, they’ll have to pay three months’ rent. They’re also the ones less likely to need or get in-person teaching, which we’ll come to. But they can’t cancel their rent contracts.

To continue to be entitled to the “away from home” maintenance loan rate that pays their rent, at the point they are allowed to return, they’ll be required to return immediately. Even if they have no actual in-person teaching timetabled for the five or so weeks then remaining before Easter.

You may well argue that students are highly sensible and altruistic (we always do), but you might also argue that basing your public health policy on students choosing to not spend time in accommodation that they are paying for is an interesting move. Surely if students need to do this in the public interest, the state should pay and offer alternatives where needed?

Technically and legally it’s a student’s choice whether they go home for Christmas or not, so those hoping for contract frustration as a legal lever over landlords will be disappointed. But it’s almost impossible to believe that universities running their own halls will be able to do anything other than offer substantial rent rebates – especially given that a handful have already offered to do so over the pre-Christmas issue.

That obviously gets more complicated if they look like your halls but are really white labelled and run privately on a nominations agreement – and even more complicated for students who are just in private halls or HMOs. Government must know that students and parents will spit chips here, and are doubtless waiting to see if the phone lines into Jeremy Vine and You and Yours are clogged before putting hands in pockets.


Here’s how the staggered return is to work. DfE is “confident” that the face-to-face teaching element of blended learning can be done in Covid-secure environments, but says that the mass movement of students across the country poses a greater risk for the transmission of infection between areas.

There are three big risks: what students do on campus, what students do off campus, and travel between home and campus. You’ll note that the risk posed by cramming young people into densely populated housing – you know, the only one that actually manifested in any real way in September and October – is conveniently ignored here. Government has been ignoring SAGE advice about that for months now.

To minimise the migration risk, providers are being asked to stagger the return of students over five weeks to minimise Covid transmission risks from the mass movement of students. That’s right – the process of blaming students for the second wave was so successful that we’re now going to do it all again, only over a longer stretch.

“Practical and placement” students are to return first, all students are to be offered lateral flow testing on return, and students who returned home over the winter break should “not be encouraged” to return to their term-time accommodation until their face-to-face teaching is scheduled to resume.

Runaround now!

To make this staggering proposal work, providers are being asked to divide their courses and students into two groups. In the 4 January to week commencing 18 January batch, providers should “allow” students on practical courses to return to campus in line with their planned start dates, taking into account work, clinical or practical placements; courses requiring practical teaching or learning; and courses requiring access to specialist or technical equipment.

There’s even a list, which if nothing else raises the question “why geography?”

  • nursing, midwifery and allied health professions
  • scientific or technology subjects that require time in laboratories or use of expensive equipment (for example, chemistry, physics, bio-sciences, engineering)
  • medical degrees involving lab work, practical instruction and placement inside hospitals (for example, medicine, dentistry and veterinary science)
  • initial teacher training (ITT)
  • architecture and planning
  • art and design
  • geography and environmental studies
  • music, dance, drama and performing arts
  • courses that are delivered solely to commuter students (where there are no residential students on the course)
  • courses which require an externally moderated or invigilated assessment, or exams from a professional body which take place during these 5 weeks and cannot be rescheduled

What’s that you say? What are you supposed to do if you’re a specialist institution whose entire course portfolio fits into one or two of those bullets? Don’t ruin it.

You might expect the types of students that can return in category two in weeks commencing 25 January and 1 February to be the heads to the above list tails. You’d be wrong. That suggested list is:

  • post-graduate taught students
  • students in later stages of study (second year onwards)
  • international students
  • new starters

What’s that you say? What are you supposed to do if your postgrads, second years, international students and new starters are on specialist courses with practical aspects? Don’t ruin it.

Don’t come back!

As noted above, students who study away from home that leave their term-time accommodation for the winter break should be “encouraged” to remain at home until their face-to-face provision resumes.

Providers “may” accommodate some other students to return to campus earlier but only where there is a “genuine need” or “extenuating circumstances”, which the letter from Donelan suggests might include those who do not have study space and cannot find any appropriate alternatives for their mental health. These students should be able to access campus facilities but will not be able to commence in-person lessons until their course’s face-to-face teaching formally restarts and should be offered testing on arrival.

Students may well, of course, arrive whenever the hell they want to. Given the alternative may well be a night in with Gary Barlow on BBC1 with the ‘rents, you can see why some students might be back in their HMO on New Year’s Eve, for example. Of course because universities will have told them not to come back, students won’t announce they’re back, and so won’t toddle off to the lateral flow testing centre until they’re officially allowed to be back. That feels like a flaw in the cunning plan to us.

The government officially still recognises that there will be students who have remained in their term-time accommodation throughout the winter break (such as international students or care leavers) or who commute – and Donelan says they should continue to be able to have access to “resources, study spaces, campus catering, specific support required by international students, and appropriate pastoral and study support in Covid-secure environments.”

They just won’t have access to other humans. Being allowed to open your refectory or library for people having to stay over Christmas isn’t much use if students still can’t mingle or gather, even in a safe and risk-assessed way. The new legislation has restricted the education gatherings exception to formal teaching – which means you can give out turkey lunch on Christmas day, but people attending can’t talk to others unless they’ve formally bubbled with them. And, of course, it’s no contact with other humans at all for up to nine weeks outside of that special Christmas exemption week.

Either universities need a dedicated programme of support groups (for which there is also an exemption) or need to carry out a programme of facilitated household consolidation. But “our library and canteen will be open” won’t cut it when the rules won’t even allow the use of halls common rooms for inter-household mingling in a halls block.

Offered online

Courses in that second late Jan/early Feb return category “should be offered online” from the beginning of term so that students can continue their studies from home. As ever, online “teaching” and online “learning” are conveniently merged, assuming that the rest of the things that campuses offer to students are somehow irrelevant or unnecessary.

Donelan’s letter also ties itself up in knots here – arguing that:

At all times of this five-week window the government and OfS expect the quality of learning to be maintained, the quantity of hours of taught education not to drop and for providers to ensure that learning is accessible for all.

…while also arguing that:

We would encourage as much face-to-face learning as possible, recognising the benefits this brings to student experience.


This government has prioritised education, including Higher Education, so we have worked to create a plan that helps ensure the safe return of all students and enables the resumption of blended learning. We remain committed to ensuring that in-person teaching and university life can continue as far as possible during these unprecedented times.

That’s right. Face to face, in person teaching can be done well online for safety reasons after all! Which does rather beg the question – why are we making over a million people move house again?


Just as universities have offered voluntary exit testing, universities are being asked to offer entry/arrival testing – although this of course will take up that sports hall and associated staff for five weeks rather than the single week it is now. Presumably the student staff making that happen at many universities will be allowed to return to campus earlier than the start of face to face teaching on their course after all.

The guidance adds that all HE providers should offer asymptomatic mass testing to all students on their return in January (really? ALL providers?) although “DfE will support smaller HE providers in partnering with neighbouring providers if they cannot provide their own test site.” Wouldn’t it make more sense for students to get a test at their nearest university before moving and then self-isolating at home if necessary?

And while we’re on that, why are commuter students in London not able to access a test at their nearest university campus rather than the grotesque chaos of a student that lives in Hendon enrolled at, say, South Bank having to get the tube, twice this week, to get a test?

Notably, Donelan’s letter has a section marked “testing on arrival and during term” that never then mentions testing during the term. All the evidence from the US tells us that regular asymptomatic screening has a crucial role to play – and it’s almost as if DfE wants that to happen, but hadn’t the heart or stomach to announce it yet. Universities would be wise to assume that’s coming.

Hard up

One Brucie Bonus in the whole package buried in Donelan’s letter is £20m on a “one-off basis” to support students that need it most, particularly disadvantaged students. This is to be disbursed by OfS, but don’t get too excited.

We won’t go over the magic money twig again here, suffice to say that Gavin Williamson cut Student Premium Funding for disadvantaged students back in May by £14m, so this is really only £6m in new money.

Bear in mind that the Welsh Government found £10m for the same issues in October (which would be £150m if it was scaled up proportionally on England’s student numbers) and you get a sense of just how limited this funding is.

We can work it out

Will all of this work? In some ways that depends on what the problem is that you think you’re trying to solve. And then who you ask to solve it.

Think about this term. The danger was not caused by seminars in lecture theatres, or a campus with all of the safety gear in place. The cases happened in and around accommodation – be that halls or HMOs. Campuses, really, were largely irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. But the Harry Potter model suggests that university is a thing that happens on a campus, so we’re running testing when you step off the train and into magical uni-world.

There’s no real account taken of other sorts of student (clock the big-boarding school references to “parents” and “lessons”) or anything students do off campus – you know, live, work, eat – which again is where most of the concern needs to be. It would make vastly more sense to either knuckle down and go for frequent mass testing of the wider population, or to ask students to test before they return. Alas, universities seem to be better at and have more capacity to administer tests than whatever assemblage of private concerns do it under the NHS brand.

Mass travel is not the risk. Mass arrival is – tons of students from all kinds of areas milling about in halls and in the local area and sharing their viruses. A staggered start could allow for the virus to arrive at many different points – generating fewer, smaller, clusters of cases. While this still adds to the case total you don’t get the extreme hotspots that we saw this term when an area suddenly gained a couple of thousand young people living in cramped conditions.

Then again, other things could happen. If you are a student in a household of ten where two students follow the rules and arrive back every week during the five week arrival window, it’s entirely possible that testing positive will see you having to undergo a self-isolation cycle in that household of seven weeks.

We do get “use local community testing programme and take a test before travelling if they have spent the winter break in a local restriction tier 3 very high area where this fits with locally-targeted programmes led by the Director of Public Health” which might be a help. But if nationally we were in a better place with testing (let alone track and trace) this should really be a requirement, as it should be for any change of domicile.

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Go with the lateral flow

There are also wider questions about the tests. In Donelan’s letter, we get:

Results of the PHE and Oxford University lateral flow test evaluation show it has an overall analytical sensitivity of 76.8% for all PCR-positive individuals but detects over 90% of individuals with high viral loads, and minimal difference between the ability of the test to pick up viral antigens in symptomatic and asymptomatic individuals. In field evaluations, such as Liverpool, these tests still perform effectively and detect at least 50% of all PCR positive individuals and more than 70% of individuals with higher viral loads in both symptomatic and asymptomatic individuals.

What this basically means is that the lateral flow test is good enough to be useful, but far from perfect. When operated by fully trained staff in the lab we can get the sensitivity up to the Oxford evaluation numbers, when operated in the field the numbers are less good.

It spots nearly three-quarters of people with a high viral load (people that could spread the virus) and half of all people who have the virus. Unis, employing as they do actual scientists, will do better than the field trial but not as well as the lab trial.

This is par for the course for a fast diagnostic test performed in non-optimal conditions – and is why positive PCR (the regular 24h test done in a lab) is recommended to check these results. There will be pushback about this all next term (it’s already started in local Facebook groups) – it makes most sense if you see the lateral flow test as an indication that you are (personally) a high risk of spreading the virus.

Which, ideally, is something you’d want a student to find out in a place that isn’t a marquee filled with other students getting tested after having queued round the campus for a few hours. There would be a case to bring testing closer to students (eg lobby of a hall of residence), or actually in a student area – and the latter could be available to all residents, ideally.

The other thing to keep an eye on over the next couple of weeks will be numbers. We reckon 20 per cent of all students getting a lateral flow test over the next couple of weeks would be an amazing result given all the circumstances, but that figure won’t play well in a press that’s been led to believe that we’re testing to “allow” or “let” students get home. And brace for the first case of a student who’s had a double negative nevertheless appearing on the doorstep with symptoms, and infecting Uncle Albert who’s already home for Christmas from the care home.

As ever, we’re in guidance territory here – not least to minimise liability from government – and much of the issue feels like we have an education department trying to fix what remains a major health and communities issue. As usual lots is left up to providers to decide based on their circumstances while ministers roam around raising expectations without raising money to deliver on them. It’s all very surreal for providers with a majority of commuter students. And in truth, public health planning really should form a big part of any “civic university” report you read over the next year, and universities ought to be working with local public health to assess risk and plan accordingly.

Who knew that doing public health via a marketised national higher education system would be so difficult?

But perhaps the biggest issue remains the potential jarring of this highly complex, restrictive start to January 2020 with the images of Boris Johnson getting his vaccination jab. Add in Brexit and a bit of snow, and oh my word. As we noted here, once we’ve all got a letter from Matt Hancock telling us when we’re getting our own shot in the arm, it will feel very odd indeed for higher education to be insisting that all of next term has to happen before, rather than partly during and after, Easter.

2 responses to “DfE publishes staggering advice for universities on students return in 2021

  1. Lateral flow test look iffy, and the saliva (Lamp) tests look even worse. :

    “The accuracy of the Lamp tests came into question last month, however, when a letter emerged from scientists with Greater Manchester’s mass testing expert group (MTEG). They said they found only 47% accuracy and warned that the tests should not be widely used in care homes and hospitals.
    But on Monday, the government said the Lamp tests had passed an evaluation with 79% overall accuracy, which included high and low virus levels using both swabs and saliva samples. Most of the testing took place in a pilot in Southampton, where 55,000 people in the NHS and at the university took part.
    The health minister Lord Bethell said the Optigene Lamp tests’ sensitivity had been confirmed in the lab and in the field.
    But Deeks said the data released on Monday showed that spiked samples had been used to increase the number of samples where the virus levels were low. Using laboratory-made “spiked” samples did not reflect performance in the real world and meant that some people would wrongly think they were in the clear when they had the virus, he said.
    “Before the government decides that these tests are to be used in the population, it is really important that we find out how well they work in people like us. This study has mixed together real clinical data with data from samples that have been made in the laboratory. This has led to its performance on saliva looking better than it is, and wrongly suggests that it can detect Sars-CoV-2 in samples with less virus in them,” he said.”

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