Covid: What's happening with universities as lockdown eases?

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University students in England have been told that they will be allowed to return to face-to-face teaching - but no earlier than 17 May.

About one million higher education students - close to 50% of the total number - are still thought to be receiving all their tuition online.

What has the government announced?

Universities minister Michelle Donelan said the timing was a "cautious approach to the easing of restrictions".

"The movement of students across the country poses a risk for the transmission of the virus, particularly because of the higher prevalence and rates of transmission of new variants," she said.

She urged students who had returned to university accommodation to remain there, and "not move back and forward" between their permanent home and student home during term time.

What has the reaction been?

University leaders have lobbied for all students to go back in April, at the start of the summer term.

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image captionSports rehabilitation courses are being taught online at the University of Hull

The UCU lecturers' union, which opposed an earlier return, says it would be more "honest" to accept that many courses would stay online until the autumn.

Restarting in-person activities in mid-May makes "no sense" as most lectures and seminars will already have finished, it says.

The National Union of Students says it is pleased that young people can at least make necessary arrangements to access their learning and accommodation.

What about universities in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland?

  • In Wales, students have returned, with a mix of face-to-face and online study
  • In Scotland, some students have had in-person classes, but from 17 May universities will "return to a more blended model of learning"
  • In Northern Ireland, hands-on courses have been taught in-person, but other courses are expected to remain online for the rest of the term

What type of teaching can students expect?

It will depend on the university or higher education college, and the course.

Some universities have already decided to keep some courses fully online for the remainder of the academic year.

Universities should shortly be in touch with students with specific information on how the latest government guidance will affect them.

Will I get Covid-tested?

Since the start of 2021, universities have been required to offer testing to students whether or not they have Covid symptoms.

Returning students will be offered their first three Covid tests under supervision on campus.

After then, they will be asked to self-test.

What about tuition fees - will there be a refund?

No. The government says university students in England must still pay full tuition fees, even if courses are taught online.

The maximum UK university tuition fee is currently £9,250 a year.

Many students feel the fees are too high, given what they have experienced on their courses during the pandemic.

An online petition, calling for tuition fees to be cut to £3,000, has received more than 580,000 signatures.

Students who live in Scotland currently pay no tuition fees to attend a Scottish university. However, those from the rest of the UK are charged.

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Can students get housing costs back?

Halls of residence

Many university-owned halls of residence and privately-run Purpose-Built Student Accommodation (PBSA) have let students terminate contracts early without any charges, if they have left accommodation because of Covid-19.

Some students have benefited from waived or discounted rent - but others have had to pay, even if they have been unable to stay at university.

Any rebate offered is a local decision for universities.

Private rented

Some landlords have negotiated rent reductions or agreed that students can be released early from contracts, but there is no legal obligation on them to do so.

Unless your landlord agrees to end your tenancy early, you will be expected to keep paying rent until the end of your contract, says the Citizens Advice service.

If you live with other people, it's important you all keep paying your rent.

If you all signed the same agreement, it's possible you have a joint tenancy. This means if one person stops paying their rent, everyone else might have to make up the difference..

If someone signed the contract as a guarantor for you or another tenant, they might also become responsible for unpaid rent.

Getting help

If you think your accommodation provider is treating you unfairly, you can raise the issue officially - if your landlord has agreed to abide by the accommodation codes of practice.

The government has not introduced specific financial help for student rent payments in England, but students (in both university-owned or private accommodation) may be able to access university hardship funds.

An additional £15m for student hardship has now been announced by Ms Donelan - in addition to £70m already distributed in the previous financial year.

My mental health is suffering, what can I do?

Data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) says almost two-thirds of students have experienced a decline in their mental health this academic year.

Universities are experiencing unprecedented levels of demand for mental health support services, says Universities UK.

Many colleges and most universities have a free and confidential in-house counselling service.

The BBC Action Line lists several helplines.

Student Minds is the UK's student mental health charity.

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CoronaVirus translator

What do all these terms mean?

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  • Antibodies test

    A medical test that can show if a person has had the coronavirus and now has some immunity. The test detects antibodies in the blood, which are produced by the body to fight off the disease.

  • Asymptomatic

    Someone who has a disease but does not have any of the symptoms it causes. Some studies suggest some people with coronavirus carry the disease but don't show the common symptoms, such as a persistent cough or high temperature.

  • Containment phase

    The first part of the UK's strategy to deal with the coronavirus, which involved trying to identify infected people early and trace anyone who had been in close contact with them.

  • Coronavirus

    One of a group of viruses that can cause severe or mild illness in humans and animals. The coronavirus currently sweeping the world causes the disease Covid-19. The common cold and influenza (flu) are other types of coronaviruses.

  • Covid-19

    The disease caused by the coronavirus first detected in Wuhan, China, in late 2019. It primarily affects the lungs.

  • Delay phase

    The second part of the UK's strategy to deal with the coronavirus, in which measures such as social distancing are used to delay its spread.

  • Fixed penalty notice

    A fine designed to deal with an offence on the spot, instead of in court. These are often for driving offences, but now also cover anti-social behaviour and breaches of the coronavirus lockdown.

  • Flatten the curve

    Health experts use a line on a chart to show numbers of new coronavirus cases. If a lot of people get the virus in a short period of time, the line might rise sharply and look a bit like a mountain. However, taking measures to reduce infections can spread cases out over a longer period and means the "curve" is flatter. This makes it easier for health systems to cope.

  • Flu

    Short for influenza, a virus that routinely causes disease in humans and animals, in seasonal epidemics.

  • Furlough

    Supports firms hit by coronavirus by temporarily helping pay the wages of some staff. It allows employees to remain on the payroll, even though they aren't working.

  • Herd immunity

    How the spread of a disease slows after a sufficiently large proportion of a population has been exposed to it.

  • Immune

    A person whose body can withstand or fend off a disease is said to be immune to it. Once a person has recovered from the disease caused by the coronavirus, Covid-19, for example, it is thought they cannot catch it again for a certain period of time.

  • Incubation period

    The period of time between catching a disease and starting to display symptoms.

  • Intensive care

    Hospital wards which treat patients who are very ill. They are run by specially-trained healthcare staff and contain specialist equipment.

  • Lockdown

    Restrictions on movement or daily life, where public buildings are closed and people told to stay at home. Lockdowns have been imposed in several countries as part of drastic efforts to control the spread of the coronavirus.

  • Mitigation phase

    The third part of the UK's strategy to deal with the coronavirus, which will involve attempts to lessen the impact of a high number of cases on public services. This could mean the NHS halting all non-critical care and police responding to major crimes and emergencies only.

  • NHS 111

    The NHS's 24-hour phone and online service, which offers medical advice to anyone who needs it. People in England and Wales are advised to ring the service if they are worried about their symptoms. In Scotland, they should check NHS inform, then ring their GP in office hours or 111 out of hours. In Northern Ireland, they should call their GP.

  • Outbreak

    Multiple cases of a disease occurring rapidly, in a cluster or different locations.

  • Pandemic

    An epidemic of serious disease spreading rapidly in many countries simultaneously.

  • Phase 2

    This is when the UK will start to lift some of its lockdown rules while still trying to reduce the spread of coronavirus.

  • PPE

    PPE, or personal protective equipment, is clothing and kit such as masks, aprons, gloves and goggles used by medical staff, care workers and others to protect themselves against infection from coronavirus patients and other people who might be carrying the disease.

  • Quarantine

    The isolation of people exposed to a contagious disease to prevent its spread.

  • R0

    R0, pronounced "R-naught", is the average number of people who will catch the disease from a single infected person. If the R0 of coronavirus in a particular population is 2, then on average each case will create two more new cases. The value therefore gives an indication of how much the infection could spread.

  • Recession

    This happens when there is a significant drop in income, jobs and sales in a country for two consecutive three-month periods.

  • Sars

    Severe acute respiratory syndrome, a type of coronavirus that emerged in Asia in 2003.

  • Self-isolation

    Staying inside and avoiding all contact with other people, with the aim of preventing the spread of a disease.

  • Social distancing

    Keeping away from other people, with the aim of slowing down transmission of a disease. The government advises not seeing friends or relatives other than those you live with, working from home where possible and avoiding public transport.

  • State of emergency

    Measures taken by a government to restrict daily life while it deals with a crisis. This can involve closing schools and workplaces, restricting the movement of people and even deploying the armed forces to support the regular emergency services.

  • Statutory instrument

    These can be used by government ministers to implement new laws or regulations, or change existing laws. They are an easier alternative to passing a full Act of Parliament.

  • Symptoms

    Any sign of disease, triggered by the body's immune system as it attempts to fight off the infection. The main symptoms of the coronavirus are a fever, dry cough and shortness of breath.

  • Vaccine

    A treatment that causes the body to produce antibodies, which fight off a disease, and gives immunity against further infection.

  • Ventilator

    A machine that takes over breathing for the body when disease has caused the lungs to fail.

  • Virus

    A tiny agent that copies itself inside the living cells of any organism. Viruses can cause these cells to die and interrupt the body's normal chemical processes, causing disease.

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