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This briefing paper was last updated in January 2021 and will no longer be updated.

In March 2020 university and college campuses were closed in response to the Coronavirus pandemic and teaching moved online.

In September 2020 guidance was published on arrangements for students moving back on to campuses for the autumn term. The Office for Students had told providers that they must provide students with clear information about what to expect when they returned to university. Most universities planned to offer students face-to-face teaching and a good student experience.

The mass movement of large numbers of university students back to campuses was highlighted as a cause for concern by the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) who said that universities could become the “care homes of a second wave” and by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) who warned that Covid outbreaks were “very likely in universities” and that closing universities would lower transmission rates.

Students arriving on campus were arranged into ‘households’ to prevent the transmission of Covid-19, but following the start of term a number of outbreaks occurred in universities and residential students in these universities were put into self-isolation. Many students in this situation complained about the support that they received and the value for money of courses under these circumstances. Several universities reverted to online teaching and this along with the disruption to student life led to several of e-petitions calling for tuition fee refunds.

The Government does not currently publish data on outbreaks of Covid-19 at universities, but according to the Universities and Colleges Union a total of 50,005 cases among staff and students had been reported at UK universities since the start of term. Not all universities publish this data and hence this is an underestimate..

There was a rapid rise in cases of Covid-19 in the ‘student age bands’ soon after the start of the academic year. There is evidence that the number of new cases among these age groups started to fall in late October and early November. However, this trend has since reversed and cases have increased rapidly in these and other age groups since early December.


The increase in cases among students has not been uniform across universities or local areas. Analysis at a local level show some areas have lots of students and lots of Covid-19 cases, but others with lots of students have relatively low levels of Covid. There are also many places with few students, but high numbers of cases. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that the return to campus has led to a rise in cases among students, particularly at some universities, but the link between this and the wider ‘second wave’ across the whole population is not at all clear. The recent rapid rise in cases happened after most students had left campus and returned home for Christmas.

On 11 November the Government announced arrangements for students moving home for Christmas. The Office for Students has published a series of FAQs on end of term 2020 arrangements in England.

On 2 December the DfE published arrangements for students returning to campus after the Christmas holidays – Guidance Students returning to higher education for spring term, the Office for Students has published an FAQ webpage on the guidance, Returning to university in 2021.

On 30 December 2020 the Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson made a statement in the House announcing that due to rising coronavirus cases the staggered return of students to schools and colleges would be delayed by a week – students in exam years, vulnerable students and children of critical workers would return from 11 January 2021 and all other students should return to full-time education on 18 January 2021. Also on 30 December Michelle Donelan the universities minister sent directions to higher education providers to restrict the number of students on practical courses returning to campus on 4 January and said that the return of all other students should be paused until at least the week commencing 25 January.

On 4 January 2021 the Prime Minister announced a national six week lockdown. Colleges, primary and secondary schools are only to remain open for vulnerable children and the children of critical workers and all other students will learn remotely until February half term. The summer GCSEs and A level exams are to be cancelled and grades will awarded based on teacher assessments – some vocational exams may go ahead in January 2021 at providers’s discretion. Higher education provision will remain online until mid February for all except future critical worker courses.

This briefing outlines issues around the return of higher education students to university in 2020-21 and sets out government guidance. It also gives a brief overview of the arrangements in further education settings. It is correct and up to date at the time of writing. For later information readers should consult the stakeholder websites included throughout the paper.

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