Students will go back to university in staggered phases after the Christmas break, with most starting the new term at home.
Education Secretary John Swinney announced that with “limited exceptions” those studying for their first degree will commence learning again while at home and will only return to campus when told to do so by their university.
Their return will be staggered over a period of at least six weeks, he said, in a bid to avoid a repeat of coronavirus outbreaks that hit student halls of residence earlier this year.
Once they return to campus, students will be encouraged to get tested for coronavirus with lateral flow devices – the same type of testing being used just now as students prepare to head home for the Christmas break.
The Education Secretary announced details of the plan for students as he made a statement at Holyrood on Tuesday on the impact of Covid-19 on education.
He stressed students should “voluntarily reduce their social interaction two weeks before they come back to university and two weeks after they come back to university to try to minimise the risk”.
Mr Swinney said as a result of the “high number of people moving around the country” when universities return, a “different approach” is needed.
He told MSPs: “At the start of the new term, universities’ return will be staggered over at least six weeks.
“With some limited exceptions, undergraduate students will restart their studies at home, at the normal beginning of term, and should only return to campus and their term-time accommodation when asked to do so by their university.
“We are also asking students to voluntarily restrict their social interaction for two weeks before they return to university and for two weeks following their return.”
He said the Scottish Government will keep the plan under review “to ensure that it remains in line with the most up-to-date scientific advice”.
Scottish Liberal Democrats leader Willie Rennie questioned whether students could be tested again before heading back to university.
“If not, does that not risk bringing the virus back to universities?” he asked the Education Secretary.
Mr Swinney said he does not think there is a “practical way to deliver testing to students other than when they return to campus”.
Asked if students will still have to pay for university accommodation despite having to delay their return to campus, the Education Secretary said that is an issue for “universities to address with individual students that are affected”.
But student leaders said the announcement had come “too late in the day” and “without the necessary detail”.
Matt Crilly, the president of the National Union of Students in Scotland, said: “Students have been asking for clarity about what the next semester will look like for them. Unfortunately, today’s announcement has come too late in the day, without the necessary detail and accompanying guidance.”
He added: “We are concerned about the mental health implications of asking students to reduce their social mixing for 28 days in total.
“Students, it seems, are also being expected to pay rent for six weeks for accommodation they can’t use. That is grossly unfair.
“We will be seeking urgent clarity from the Scottish Government and universities to ensure no student is left out of pocket.”
Alastair Sim, the director of Universities Scotland, said having a staggered return meant institutions would need to make “urgent adaptations to timetables and teaching resources to give students the learning experience they deserve”.
He also said: “We need urgently to see detailed guidance from Scottish Government to give substance to today’s high-level announcement.”
Mr Sim added: “A staggered return and a Government policy that discourages students from returning to their accommodation at the beginning of term raises many questions in relation to students’ accommodation contracts, with potentially major cost implications at a time when institutions are under very serious financial pressure.
“We look forward to urgent discussion of this with the Scottish Government in the interests of supporting students, supporting institutions and making the guidance operationally effective.”
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