University students could be told to self-isolate for a fortnight so they can return home for Christmas, according to reports.
Education chiefs are considering asking students in high infection areas to isolate for two weeks at the end of this term, even if they are not showing Covid-19 symptoms, the reports say.
Ministers hope this will help prevent the spread of the virus from university areas, some of which are currently under lockdown, to other parts of the country, The Times reports today.
It comes as Education Secretary Gavin Williamson is today expected to call on universities to adopt a proportionate response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Thousands of students across Britain are now self-isolating for a fortnight after more than 500 cases of Covid-19 were confirmed across at least 32 universities.
University students (pictured left and right: University students who are self-isolating in Manchester) could be told to self-isolate for a fortnight so they can return home for Christmas, according to reports
It comes as Education Secretary Gavin Williamson (pictured) is today expected to call on universities to adopt a proportionate response to the coronavirus pandemic
Thousands of students across Britain are now self-isolating for a fortnight after more than 500 cases of Covid-19 were confirmed across at least 32 universities. Pictured: A sign made from sticky notes says 'Help Us' at a halls of residence in Manchester
Mrs Williamson is expected to the MPs today MPs that students should not face further restrictions.
Education watchdog backs tuition fee refunds for students in lockdown if the quality of their course drops
Students at universities hit by coronavirus should seek tuition fee refunds if the quality of their course slips, the higher education watchdog said last night.
At least 40 universities have recorded virus cases – around one in four – leaving thousands of students locked down in halls.
They have complained of ‘disgusting’ conditions as they are essentially sealed off from the outside world.
The situation has caused growing anger over the prospect of no face-to-face learning despite fees of up to £9,250 per year.
The Office for Students (OfS) regulator has now urged students who feel the quality of their education has been affected to complain, warning universities not to take a ‘blanket policy’ against refunds.
Chief executive Nicola Dandridge said: ‘Students have a right to good quality higher education – whether that is taught online, in-person or a mixture of the two.
‘Where they feel this is not happening they can raise concerns with their university, escalating complaints to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator where a resolution cannot be found.
‘They can also inform the OfS, and we can and will investigate if we believe that universities have not taken all reasonable steps to protect standards or where quality is slipping for groups of students.’
She added: ‘In considering whether to make partial tuition fee refunds, we would expect a university to consider the circumstances for each student rather than to adopt a blanket policy that refunds are not available.’
He is also expected to reveal plans to reduce the risk of transmission when the current term ends in December - one of which is the rumoured two-week self isolation proposal.
Up to 4,000 students are currently self-isolating for two weeks following outbreaks at universities across the country.
University of Exeter students living in the city have been told to self-isolate for the next two weeks - as the government insisted locked down freshers would be able to visit their families over Christmas.
The Government yesterday said all students in isolation at university should be allowed home for the festive period amid a growing row over coronavirus lockdowns on campuses.
The University of Exeter became the latest to lockdown its students yesterday, ordering them to stay indoors and only mix with people within their household.
It is believed that more than half of the cases confirmed in Exeter over the last week can be traced back to the university.
Elsewhere, 1,700 students are under lockdown at the Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) campuses of Birley and Cambridge Halls.
All lectures, seminars and classes for first-year students at the university will now be online for the next 14 days.
Yesterday, MMU's vice-chancellor said its isolating students will be given financial compensation of more than a week's rent and a care package including 'basic food'.
The National Union of Students has received reports of security guards outside blocks, universities telling students they will deliver food and then it not arriving and others left 'wondering where the next roll of toilet roll is coming from'.
And lawyers have encouraged students in isolation to seek their help for free, with Levins Solicitors of Liverpool tweeting: 'To the MMU students at Birley campus and Cambridge halls: get in touch and we will do our best to help, pro bono.'
But amid fears over what will happen by December, a Downing Street spokesman said today: 'We would expect all students to be able to go home at Christmas.'
Meanwhile the University of Aberdeen has asked private landlords to report students caught breaching coronavirus restrictions and warned students caught breaking the rules would face 'robust' disciplinary action.
(Left to right) Mia Winrow, 19, Natasha Kutscheruk, 18 and Niamh Morrow, 19, of Manchester Metropolitan's Birtley Hall, pictured today. The students have been locked down since Friday
Five of the 1,700 students under lockdown at the Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) campuses of Birley and Cambridge Halls speak to Sky News yesterday following the outbreak
First-year students pose from behind fencing at a campus of MMU on Saturday evening
NUS president Larissa Kennedy told ITV's Good Morning Britain today: 'I'm hearing from some students across the country where there are security guards outside of these blocks where students are being kept, stopping people from leaving, coming and going, where students are being discouraged from getting deliveries and told by the university that they'll deliver food and that delivery has not arrived and so they've gone for the day without food.
'I've heard from other students who, they've turned up with an amount of toilet roll, told with no notice that they're going to be locked down and wondering where the next roll of toilet roll is coming from.
Lawyers offer free help to freshers fighting campus lockdowns
One legal firm has encouraged students in isolation to seek their help for free amid concerns over those stuck at two Manchester Metropolitan University campuses.
Levins Solicitors of Liverpool tweeted: 'To the MMU students at Birley campus and Cambridge halls: get in touch and we will do our best to help, pro bono.'
Lectures and classes for first-years at MMU will all be given online for the next 14 days, with the situation to be reviewed at regular intervals.
Supt Chris Hill, of Greater Manchester Police, said that 'to our knowledge' officers had not been deployed to enforce the rules on students.
He said the campus self-isolation was 'not a policing issue'.
Manchester's Director of Public Health David Regan also confirmed that the lockdown was currently optional.
'It just feels like these are disgusting conditions for students to have been trapped in.'
The number of students trying to get a shopping delivery means some say they are starting to run out of food, with parents turning up to halls with bags of shopping.
Recruitment worker Tina McKenzie, whose daughter is currently isolating in Edinburgh tweeted: 'My daughter is in quarantine in her halls in Edinburgh.
'They said they would deliver food - she advised she is vegan. The University of Edinburgh sent a Mars bar and croissant.'
MMU student Phoebe told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: 'I've had a test back and I'm actually positive, which is quite scary. I wouldn't be surprised if I've got corona from this place. Before the isolation would be the period when I would have got it.
'There's just been non-stop parties, no social distancing, no wearing masks in the corridors, which would all contribute to the spread.'
Another MMU student, Tasiana, 18, told the New Statesman: 'No one was in the flat when I arrived. I know a girl that lives in another block that didn't meet her flatmates for days after moving in.
'The majority of everyone's time is spent in their rooms, attending online seminars. It's hard to speak to my flatmates because a lot of them have eight-hour days of classes on Zoom, so people hardly leave their rooms. One of my flatmates still hasn't come out of her room yet. We aren't sure if maybe she is a bit nervous about social distancing.'
As thousands prepared to start the new term, at the University of Aberdeen, sanctions for those breaking the rules include a fine of up to £250 as well as possible suspension or expulsion, with private landlords urged to report 'any incidents of a breach' to the university.
Lawyers have encouraged students in isolation at university to seek their help pro-bono
A student gives a thumbs up at the window of a flat at Birley student halls in Manchester today
But third-year student Jack Boag, 20, said students have been 'sold a lie' and 'treated like the problem' - despite being encouraged to come back to university.
Compensation plans for Manchester Metropolitan students who are self-isolating
Students stuck in self-isolation at Manchester Metropolitan University will be given financial compensation of more than a week's rent, its vice-chancellor has said.
Professor Malcolm Press said 'a significant amount of money' would be given, on top of a care package that includes 'basic food', to ensure students felt 'protected and cared for'.
Speaking to Sky News he said: 'It will be a package that I think students will appreciate, that allows them to rest assured, while they're in this situation, they don't have any particular financial worries as a consequence.'
Prof Press said details were being discussed with students, but added that 'a financial package means hard cash', with it representing 'more than an actual week's rent'.
'Students will be receiving financial compensation to ensure that they feel protected and cared for during this period of self isolation,' he said.
Over the weekend fears were raised among a number of students at Manchester Metropolitan University that they were being falsely imprisoned in their accommodation, with human rights lawyers questioning the legality of security staff enforcing a 14-day isolation period.
Students described being scared and confused as their accommodation was locked down on Friday, after 127 people tested positive for coronavirus.
They were later told the decision, made in conjunction with Public Health England and Manchester City Council, was 'deemed necessary' to prevent the spread of the virus to other students, staff or the community.
But Prof Press told Sky News today: 'We were asked to ensure (students) would self-isolate because there had been an outbreak of Covid into halls of residence.
'We're advising students on the rules, what they should do, we're supporting them, but the idea that they're not able to leave is just not true I'm afraid.
'Students are free to go should they wish to and a small number of students have gone home in a Covid-secure way.'
Prof Press also said there had been some 'miscommunication' within the university over students being asked to remove posters.
'We've retracted that information, students are very free to put posters up and we obviously value freedom of speech, and it's just regretful that there was a message sent out in error,' he said.
Mr Boag said: 'In terms of the lockdown, I live in a private flat quite far away from the Covid hotspots, so it comes across as closing the stable doors after the horse has bolted.
'We were told it would be a blended learning experience, and obviously that hasn't happened. Coming up to Aberdeen from my home in Fife has been completely pointless.
'We've been consistently told to come back to campus, we've been consistently told that it would be a blended learning experience, and now that we're here it feels as if we've been sold a lie and treated as if we are the problem.
'For first years who have just moved into halls with people that they've never met, that's hard. My main concern is that landlords could quite easily take advantage of this.
'The landlord/tenant dynamic is not an equal one, so it could become a tool for blackmail, essentially. I'm a private renter so they've been talking to my landlord, and while I can understand the university isn't taking any chances, it's worrying.
'It seems when other universities are easing back, Aberdeen is doubling down and emphasising the punishments and what will happen if you breach regulations.'
Mr Boag, from Fife, said while he doesn't have plans to move back home, he understands why many other students might feel differently.
He said: 'I would have to go back to my grandparents who are vulnerable or my dad who is a key worker, so for me it's not really an option, although I can see why it would be attractive for others.'
Ms McKenzie said she 'followed up multiple times and sent a few dead salads', adding: 'I've sent her parcels and she has ordered takeaway. Lucky she has the money unlike less fortunate others.'
Labour even called for a delay to the start of the English term until the chaotic testing system can meet soaring demand.
Daisy Cooper, Liberal Democrat spokesperson for education, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: 'I'm extremely worried about these young people.
'Some of them will be vulnerable to mental ill health, and for some of them it's the very first time away from home.
'So I think that the very first thing that needs to happen is that universities need to be given the support to identify which students may be particularly vulnerable.
'The second thing is there needs to be an assessment of which young people want to stay at university and which ones may not want to stay there.'
She added: 'If young people want to be returning at some point between now and Christmas, there needs to be a plan that the Government works up with universities so that we have a managed Covid-secure return of those young people to home.
'Because what we can't have is for those young people to be moving in the same numbers at the same time that they were at the start of term, but doing that at Christmas time.'
Health minister Helen Whately told Radio 4 that the Government could not rule out the prospect that university students may be unable to return home at Christmas.
She said: 'We want them to be home for Christmas. Everybody wants to come home and spend Christmas with family. We want that very much to be the case.
A note left in the window of a flat at Birley student halls of residence in Manchester today
'Christmas is some time off yet and it is down to all of us to get this under control so we can spend Christmas with our families.'
Pressure mounts for universities to refund tuition fees
Pressure is mounting on universities to refund tuition fees as thousands of students face lockdowns, online-only courses and the prospect of Christmas confined to their halls.
Tory MPs said it was 'madness' that the country's universities were charging the same fees for 'second-rate' learning.
As students face the prospect of being confined to their halls of residence over Christmas because of Covid-19 outbreaks on campuses, 3,000 students have already been locked down in their rooms after cases at 36 universities, including Glasgow, Manchester Metropolitan and Edinburgh Napier.
Last night Robert Halfon, the Conservative chairman of the education select committee, said students must be compensated for the lack of face-to-face learning.
The Department for Education said students who wanted refunds should appeal to their universities.
Mr Halfon told the Daily Mail: 'If we have 3,000 students in lockdown now, it could be 6,000 next week, so ministers need to come up with a plan on testing and tracing. And we need to ensure students are back by Christmas, because a lockdown over Christmas would cause anguish for them and their families.
'The Government needs to seriously consider a discount, because when you pay for a product you should expect to get that product, and if not, you should get some money returned.'
Tory MP George Freeman said yesterday it was 'madness' that students were locked in halls of residences by universities 'still happily taking their money'.
He said on Twitter: 'How do I think universities make up the losses from offering student discounts? Well, not from fleecing students! Maybe from vice-chancellors' £300,000 salaries?'
In Manchester, the 1,700 students have been told they cannot leave the campus to visit the local testing centre, leading to fears the outbreak will spread.
Labour education spokesman Kate Green said today that the Government should 'step up' testing capacity to help ensure university students can return home for Christmas,
She told Sky News: 'Students will desperately want to be able to go home to be with friends and family at Christmas. And, of course, it's right that we all have a part to play in keeping distance and keeping safe.
'But the real key to this is getting the mass testing rolled out so that students can be tested, we can know if somebody is testing positive and make sure that they are isolated and don't travel.
'But it would mean the other students would be able to get back home for Christmas and that's why the Government needs to step up too and make sure that that testing capacity is available.'
She also said the Government should support universities' efforts to test for coronavirus, adding: 'One thing that I think particularly in relation to students: much more effort could be made to support those universities that are already developing their own testing capacity, like Leicester, for example, or Cambridge.
'And the Government could be really working much more closely alongside them to get that additional capacity that would relieve pressure elsewhere in the NHS and other pillars of testing.
'And it would mean that students could be tested on campus, so could university staff.'
Ms Green argued this would help make universities 'much safer places'.
Last night Ms Green called on ministers to stop students from returning to university for the start of the academic year – affecting 2.3 million in the UK.
She said they should either delay the start of term or 'pause' the return of students to university campuses where courses had not started.
Backing Miss Green, NUS president Larissa Kennedy told The Guardian the union was demanding 'a functional test-and-trace system in place on campuses and adequate funding to tackle the student mental health crisis'.
She added in a tweet: 'Government and universities are gambling with students' lives.'
Ms Kennedy added on Good Morning Britain today: 'First and foremost, we are of course encouraging people to do the right thing for public health and to follow that guidance.
Students post a message in their window at MMU yesterday complaining about the situation
A sign on a closed gate at the Birley student halls of residence in Manchester this morning
Bottles of alcohol lined up in a window of the Birley student halls in Manchester this morning
'But we are questioning whether this is legal, in terms of making sure that students get that access to the basic amenities that they need - to food, to toiletries and to all the things they need just to survive lockdown - and in cases where that hasn't been the case, whether it has been legal to keep them cooped up in that way without that access to the things that they need.'
Morrisons cashes in on students trapped in campus lockdowns
Morrisons has today revealed an SOS 'Serve our Students' food delivery service aimed at those in lockdown on campuses.
The supermarket said students will be able to choose from the food boxes of £35 meat essentials; £35 vegetarian essentials; £30 easy meals for the week; and £25 big night in.
An example of the food packs Morrisons will be delivering to isolating students
Its delivery service will launch at the lockdown-hit Birley and Cambridge Halls at Manchester Metropolitan and will then expand to other universities.
Students can email [email protected] to place their order today and it will be delivered to them tomorrow between 5pm and 7pm.
Morrisons chief executive David Potts said: 'Students have asked for our help and that's why we are making sure they can safely access affordable food at this very difficult time. We're playing our full part in feeding the nation so that no one is left behind.'
The company hopes students will soon be able to place their order by 2pm for delivery that evening. If successful, the service will be rolled out to other universities across the country.
But outgoing University of Buckingham vice-chancellor Sir Anthony Seldon said: 'We must have a sense of perspective. Universities have gone to huge lengths to plan for this and many are coping.'
And the Department for Education rejected Labour's call, insisting it was 'working closely with universities to support them to keep staff and students as safe as possible'.
Niamh Thripleton, a new zoology student at Reading, told BBC Radio 4's Today: 'We're obviously not allowed to go out. Freshers is all online.
'We're, we think, only meant to socialise with our flat, but they haven't really been enforced or been made clear.
'It's just been a lot quieter, it's been harder making friends. Turning up and realising everything is going to be online is a bit of an anti-climax.
'You'd think it (a zoology degree) would be quite a lot of lab work, and it's quite worrying how I'm going to do that online.
'I just think the way Manchester Met and other places have been locked down, being on your room on your own for two weeks with now freedom there, I don't I'd be able to cope with that, so it's kind of worrying.'
Her stepfather Chris Taplin told the programme: 'I do feel she's certainly been robbed of the experienced I had at university.
'It is also really scary when you read things about the Christmas threat, not coming home, when it is the first time they've moved out and we basically feel we'd be some kind of law breaker if we went there and busted her out. But it's been the first thing for a sort of mental trauma, really.
'Certainly my wife has been saying, 'don't worry we'll get you out' (if she's locked down in halls at Christmas), but I think that's obviously not a very sensible position to go and do that.
'But I think we're both making sure we get food to her and keep talking to her as much as possible.'
Meanwhile the Prime Minister has been urged to ensure online tuition at universities 'becomes the norm', amid concern over the impact of Covid-19 lockdowns on students.
In a letter to Boris Johnson, the University and College Union (UCU), accused some institutions of adopting a 'stubborn position' over requiring in-person teaching because they depended on rent from student accommodation.
An 'HMP' sign has been put up in one of the windows of the Birley student halls this morning
A sign reading 'help' is left in a window of one of the flats in Manchester this morning
Signs in windows of the Birley student halls of residence in Manchester this morning
In her letter to Mr Johnson, Jo Grady, UCU general secretary, said the union which represents academics and university staff was 'not prepared to take chances with the health of students, our members and the communities they serve'.
University asks private landlords to report any students caught breaching Covid rules
A top university has asked private landlords to report students caught breaching coronavirus restrictions.
The University of Aberdeen has warned students of the consequences facing them if they breach national Covid-19 related guidance.
In a statement emailed last night, university bosses said students caught breaking the rules would face 'robust' disciplinary action.
Sanctions include a fine of up to £250 as well as possible suspension or expulsion.
And private landlords around the city have been asked to report 'any incidents of a breach' to the university.
The statement read: 'Given the events of the last few days I want to emphasise that any breaches will not be tolerated, and those found to be breaking the rules will face robust action.
'Sanctions include a fine of up to £250 as well as the potential for further action - including suspension and/or expulsion - under our Code of Conduct on Student Discipline (non academic).
'Regardless of whether you live in University provided accommodation, a private flat or in student accommodation from a private provider, we will still look to take the same appropriate disciplinary measures against any student that fails to follow the requirements that are currently in place to protect everyone in Scotland.
'We are in contact with landlords and have asked that any incidents of a breach of our Covid Campus Pledge and Guidelines and the national guidelines are reported to the University, to enable the matter to be investigated in the usual way.'
'It is clear that remote learning should be the default for campus life while we are in this precarious position with the virus,' she said.
'However, what we are seeing on the ground is university employers hiding behind the Government's current sectoral guidance, with all the ambiguities associated with the term 'blended learning'.
She added: 'Whilst other sectors are being encouraged by the Government to work from home to help control the spread of the virus, universities are requiring staff to travel across their local regions to work on-site and in-person with any number of students.
'Considering the known risks associated with in-person teaching and students living in close quarters, why did the Government not insist on minimising in-person teaching and students travelling to universities?
'We have concerns that universities are taking this stubborn position because they depend on rents from student accommodation - and because your own Government refuses to step in and underwrite universities' lost income for the duration of the pandemic to ensure they are not negatively impacted and jobs are not lost.'
The Government is under pressure to guarantee young people are not confined to their halls of residence over the Christmas period because of Covid-19 outbreaks on campuses.
Ms Grady said students should be allowed to leave their accommodation and return home 'without fear of financial penalty'.
'We cannot have students forced to quarantine in halls of residence with no familiar support network, or staff forced to carry out work on site that could be conducted more safely from home,' she said.
Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the Office for Students (OfS), the higher education regulator in England, said it would be 'looking very closely' at the quality of education being provided by institutions.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4's Today programme, she said institutions must be clear with students on what teaching conditions they can expect and if this changed.
'What we can't have is a situation where students don't know what's going on, that they're locked in their halls of accommodation, and can't get hold of food,' she said.
She said students had 'legal rights as consumers' and could raise complaints with their university and the Office of the Independent Adjudicator.
Students at Manchester Metropolitan have been left unimpressed by the cost of studies
Students look down from outside their window at MMU while in lockdown yesterday
Asked if students should receive a refund of tuition fees she said it was 'a question for government'.
The 1,700 MMU students in lockdown yesterday complained of feeling abandoned – with some already plotting their escape.
After 127 positive tests for Covid-19 on Friday, the shocked students – many of them freshers living away from home for the first time – were ordered to self-isolate in their halls of residence for a fortnight.
Desperate undergraduates said supplies of food and toiletries were low and complained of students holding all-night parties likened to 'prison riots'.
A student waves through the window of accommodation at MMU behind a sign yesterday
Some tried to ease the boredom by putting up signs in their windows with slogans including 'send drink' and 'f*** Boris'.
'Don't fine students for partying – refund their fees': Oxford professor urges UK to follow Sweden and PAY infected freshers to trace their contacts
A Oxford professor has urged universities in the UK to follow Sweden and pay infected freshers to trace their contacts as at least 32 report Covid cases.
Carl Heneghan, professor of evidence-based medicine at Oxford University told the Times newspaper the Government had helped every sector but had 'clamped down' on students.
The professor said that the UK should pay students to trace their contacts if they become infected and said students should be trusted to behave like responsible adults instead of being locked on campus over Christmas.
He added: 'We should waive student fees. We have asked people to go back to university and at the first sign cases are going up, we are clamping down on people.'
As some students in lockdown likened the university to a prison by labelling it 'HMP MMU', with security guards blocking them from leaving, legal experts claimed their incarceration could amount to false imprisonment.
Adam Wagner, a human rights barrister at Doughty Street chambers in London, wrote on Twitter: 'False imprisonment is detention without lawful authority.'
Hours later, university vice-chancellor Professor Malcolm Press conceded it could only 'expect' students to follow the self-isolation rules – designed to avoid spreading the infection to their home towns.
While many students pledged to stick it out, others were preparing to flee the city.
Tilly Thompson, 19, said she felt like a 'caged animal' and was waiting for her mother to take her home to Wolverhampton.
Students claimed some of those under restrictions had been ignoring the rules and throwing parties.
One boasted the quarantine would be 'a two-week p***-up', saying he had '200 cans of lager' and 'it's going to get messy'.
A student called Tom told BBC Radio 5 Live that people had been running past their flats shouting: 'Open your doors, we've got coronavirus, we want to give it to you.'
He added: 'It was insane... parties going on everywhere, loud music... It was like a prison riot.'
Martyn Moss, of the University and College Union, said he had warned MMU chiefs that their plans for the 'mass return of students would inevitably see institutions become Covid incubators'.
He added: 'Universities should have spent the summer following the science and preparing properly for this inevitable crisis.'
* Are you a student in lockdown? Send your photos to: [email protected] *