The Education Secretary Gavin Williamson is expected to announce that universities will begin a gradual return to in-person teaching beginning on March 8.

This, alongside proposals to reopen schools, will be a keystone of the UK’s gradual exit from national lockdown, which began in early January. The plan is expected to prioritise final-year students, particularly those in practical subjects such as performing arts and laboratory-based sciences.

Cabinet minister Michael Gove had previously raised doubt about the date of return, clarifying that March 8 was the earliest possible date. Since the beginning of the lockdown, the number of positive cases and deaths has declined though they remain high, on par with the figures during the first peak of the pandemic in March and April 2020. However, the government may have been encouraged by a declining infection rate and millions of people receiving vaccinations.

Universities UK, which represents vice-chancellors of most universities, has said that they will continue to make sure that as many students can return to campuses as Covid-19 restrictions allow.

However, there have been concerns raised about the plan both by key unions and students. The University and College Union has stated that lecturers will go on strike if they are forced to conduct teaching in an “unsafe” environment. While rising vaccinations may provide some comfort, there has been controversy over the fact that teachers are not prioritised to receive them. The opposition Labour Party has said that teachers should be vaccinated after the most vulnerable individuals. The Union’s General Secretary, Jo Grady said that there should be no return to in-person teaching this academic year, regardless.

There are also questions about the plan’s viability for students who have had to leave campus because of the pandemic. Most universities have been operating under distant, online learning since the beginning of the pandemic last year with the exception of some courses that can operate in small-groups and socially distanced. Students in practical subjects such as Medicine, Dentistry, education and Veterinary Medicine have also been able to attend in-person classes.

International students may also find it challenging to return for in-person teaching. The London School of Economics has confirmed that its mandatory teaching will move online for the entire 2020-2021 school year to cater to their large international student body.

In addition, 20% of students surveyed by ‘Save the Student’ are also currently living at home due to the pandemic. It remains to be seen whether students will feel it necessary to return to campus if universities do not offer a significant portion of classes in-person. Even before the lockdown, most of King’s teaching was delivered remotely. King’s Residences has allowed students to delay their arrival date on campus and claim a refund on the accommodation for the time spent at home.

King’s College London has maintained that they are taking a “flexible approach” to teaching and that their response will be in line with the government’s guidance. Before the lockdown, some courses had had limited in-person teaching in small-groups. The university announced on February 8 that “majority of undergraduate and postgraduate taught students’ programmes will continue to be delivered fully online for the remainder of the 2020-21 academic year”. Individual university responses can be seen here. It is expected that Williamson will officially announce the government’s plans for universities on February 22.

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