Global menu

Our global pages


A staggered start to 2021 Everything you need to know

  • United Kingdom
  • Education - Briefings


The six day travel window, allowing students to temporarily join another household, began in earnest this week. Following an Autumn term like no other, students are preparing to leave university for the Christmas break, with most flocking back to their families.

As you would expect, there is already an eye on what will happen in the new year, when the Spring term is due to start. As seen in the second lockdown, when all education institutions remained open whilst many businesses were forced to shut, education is a Government priority and everyone is keen for students to be able to return to campuses and institutions as soon as possible.

With this in mind, the DfE has published guidance on a staggered return of students to campus in January/February 2021, with the aim of hopefully avoiding a repeat of a surge in Covid-19 cases that was seen at the start of the 2020/2021 academic year.

It has been suggested that medical students and those on practical courses will be the first to return with others continuing to be taught online until they come back in line with the staggered system. The target is for all students to be on campus by 7 February 2021. There will, of course, be exceptions to the rules. For example, students who do not have other accommodation or study space, or who need to return to campus for health reasons, will be able to apply to return earlier than would otherwise be the case.

Whilst clarity is being sought on how the testing of all students will be managed, delivered and results monitored, the move has been welcomed by the University and College Union. There are, though, still concerns about the ongoing management of risks to staff and students on campus.

When designing their implementation plans, universities will have a long list of considerations. Some of the main work to be undertaken will include:

  • assessing the requirements of courses offered to determine which students should return first;
  • checking student agreements and accommodation contracts for facilities which universities have committed to offer and confirming these can be provided safely. If not, universities may need advice on whether the agreements and contracts can be varied and, if so, how and, crucially, when these variations should be implemented. In varying contracts, universities will need to consider the requirements of consumer law and ensure any action they take does not breach the students’ rights as consumers;
  • reviewing whether accommodation contracts provide sufficient flexibility to allow the students’ rights to occupy accommodation to be suspended due to Covid-19. Those universities who included suspension clauses in their 2020/21 accommodation agreements in anticipation of the effects of Covid-19, may find they have more options available to manage the financial risk of the delayed start than those who did not;
  • considering how to appropriately and proactively deal with students who either remain on campus or return earlier than the institutions intended. Whilst universities will adopt an overall approach, there will always be exceptions which may pose their own logistical challenges;
  • working out what, if any, obligations the university has in relation to students in private rented accommodation who return before their proposed date. The university will have no direct control over this and it is unlikely that private landlords will refund rent for any period of non-occupation, a factor which could inadvertently and indirectly undermine the university’s strategy on the staggered return;
  • organising the testing of all students in a way which ensures the welfare of both students and those administering the tests;
  • accommodating those who have to self-isolate as a result of a positive test or international students required to self-isolate on return to the UK. This should include pastoral support, mental health awareness, COVID-19 advice and guidance, access to daily necessities and making sure students know how to access NHS services;
  • putting in place a robust plan of how the staggered start will be implemented and making sure all students are dealt with in a fair and even-handed manner, including those who decide they do not want to return to campus; and
  • taking a proactive approach to refunds for accommodation and student fees. The OIA reported last week on its outcomes of the first batch of complaints arising from coronavirus-related changes to course provision. Institutions will be encouraged by the overriding conclusion that coronavirus is not, of itself, a reason for a student to receive a fee refund. Nevertheless the outcomes reinforce the need for institutions to consider the impact of changes to course provision on the individual student. This should be done in a way which minimises the impact on learning and ensures students are not disadvantaged academically.

As these uncertain and unprecedented times continue, universities need to start planning for the next term of blended learning and the challenges that a staggered start to the Spring term will bring, ensuring the well-being of staff and students alike.