Christmas, Covid-19 restrictions and higher education

In the wake of the tightening of Christmas exemptions, I thought it would be useful to take brief stock of where we are in relation to students and higher education - partly because Wonkhe readers are the sorts of people who will be asked about this stuff by others.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe


This stuff is right, as far as we know, on Sunday 20th December. And before we get into this – no, neither the Department for Education (DfE) or any of the devolved nations equivalents have announced any changes to current stated plans for the “staggered start” to next term.

If you have any questions or spot any mistakes do let us know in comments below.

Getting home for Christmas

For students who study away from home that have still not returned home for Christmas, the changes announced by the Prime Minister in the form of new Tier 4 don’t make any difference.

The “Student Travel Window” always was only guidance, and whatever the general restrictions now in your tier, it remains the case in England that there is a specific exemption in all tiers that allows higher education students to move from their student household to one other household for the purposes of a vacation.

That student then doesn’t count as an extra household in any rules once they’re there, and they can do this once (and then move back once) between now and 8th February 2021. In Scotland the law is framed slightly differently (it refers to “end of term households” which are where someone might move to for the period between the first and second terms) but the effect is basically the same.

The rules are almost exactly the same in Wales and Northern Ireland, save that different legal interpretations of “household” mean that we’re in the realm of guidance, and where there are legal restrictions on travel, students moving between households as described above is basically a reasonable excuse to breach the rules.

During the Christmas break

Officially higher education providers have been asked to make provision for students that remain in their university town or city over Christmas, obviously particularly if they study away from home. Where that gets complicated is in working out what it’s legally permissible to actually do.


Generally the exemptions on gatherings for (higher) education remain in place in all tiers in all parts of the UK including new England Tier 4. These always include having to have due regard to guidance, risk assessing and doing all you can to minimise spread etc, and are phrased as follows:

  • England: “the gathering is reasonably necessary for the purposes of a course of study or essential life skills training provided by a higher education provider”
  • Scotland: “the gathering is for the purpose of childcare, education or training”
  • Wales: “the gathering is for the purpose of accessing or receiving educational services”
  • Northern Ireland: “the gathering is for the purpose of education or training”


Unless the gathering is explicitly for education as above, students in England like everyone else can only gather indoors with those they live with or they have formed a support bubble with (a single person household, and they can’t swap that support bubble around).

On Christmas Day only, again like everyone else, students in each extended household defined above can form a “Christmas bubble” to meet with other households as follows:

  • England: Three households max, except in Tier 4 where households can’t mix.
  • Scotland: 8 people from 3 households max.
  • Wales: No more than 2 households.

In Northern Ireland between 23 and 27 December one “Christmas bubble” composed of up to three households, and one of the three households can include an existing bubble arrangement. After that households can form one bubble with one other household however indoor meetings between households in the bubble are limited to a maximum of 10 people.


In England, hospitality venues in Tiers 1 and 2 can host multiple groups and should follow Covid-secure guidance, but students must not mix with anyone who is not part of their household or support bubble when they are indoors. Hospitality venues in Tiers 3 and 4 have to close, although there are two exemptions for higher education:

  • cafes or canteens at educational accommodation for students attending higher education courses
  • cafes or canteens at a higher education provider, where there is no practical alternative for staff and students at that institution to obtain food or drink

Note the above exemptions don’t mean that households can mix within thoise venues, only that they can operate. The household mixing rules that apply to everyone else still apply inside those venues.


In all four parts of the UK the travel and gatherings exemptions that have previously been in place for students in higher education will, as it stands, remain. Similar guidance has been issued everywhere asking higher education providers to stagger the start of term, make lateral flow testing available and to advise students studying away from home not to return to their term time accommodation until asked to.

For the time being, testing remains voluntary and has only announced to be running for student arrival rather than the whole of term.

No financial assistance (beyond hardship funding) is available to students who can’t use paid for term time accommodation for several weeks as a result and the request would not result in rental contract frustration.

International students arriving into or returning to the UK will still have to quarantine for the standard length of time in the usual way.

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