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Ministers accused of ‘disrespectful’ attitude towards students after confirmation most will not return to English universities until 17 May

Ministers have been accused of a “disrespectful” attitude towards students after it was confirmed they will not return to university in England until 17 May at the earliest.

Face-to-face teaching will continue to be limited, raising questions about how many students will take up the offer so close to the end of term.

Professor Charlie Jeffery, vice chancellor of the University of York, described the timing of the announcement as “very late” and “disrespectful”.

“It makes it extraordinarily difficult for our students to know where they are going to be and what they are going to be doing.

“I find it actually rather disrespectful that students don’t have the certainty that other sectors of the economy, for example tattoo parlours do,” Professor Jeffery told the BBC.

The 17 May date will coincide with the further easing of restrictions on social contact indoors in England, as long as coronavirus case numbers continue to go in the right direction.

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Most students in England were told not to return to campus as part of the nationwide lockdown announced in January.

Some on practical courses, which require specialist equipment and facilities, began to return to face-to-face teaching on 8 March.

In a written ministerial statement, universities minister Michelle Donelan warned the movement of students across the country still posed a possible transmission risk.

Once they do return, students will be asked to take three supervised Covid-19 tests, three to five days apart, at testing sites on campus.

Students will also have access to home testing kits for the rest of the term, the Department for Education said.

Ms Donelan said ministers recognised how difficult and disruptive the last year had been for students.

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“However, the road map is designed to maintain a cautious approach to the easing of restrictions, to ensure that we can maintain progress towards full reopening. By (mid-May), more of the population will be vaccinated, and there is also more time to increase testing to reduce risk further.”

Professor Julia Buckingham, president of Universities UK (UUK), which represents vice-chancellors, recently described it as “illogical” to open gyms and shops on April 12 and not allow students to return to campus.

A parliamentary petition calling for students to be allowed to return to university at the start of the summer term has also garnered more than 5,700 signatures.

Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, from the National Union of Students, said: “We are pleased that the government has finally remembered that students exist and started to fill the information vacuum of its own making. Our priority has always been that students and staff go back to a safe campus, and this be led by scientific advice, but the silence has been galling.”

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But the University and College Union (UCU) has called for university courses to remain online until September.

The DfE has said it will make an additional £15 million of funding available for student hardship this academic year.