Students are defying government guidance that they should stay at university throughout lockdown to make a last-minute dash home before the new restrictions kick in across England on Thursday.
The universities minister, Michelle Donelan, has written to students urging them to stay put.
After a challenging first term, during which thousands of students have already had to lock down and self-isolate as a result of Covid outbreaks, many have decided to leave campus.
With continuing uncertainty about what might happen over Christmas and the majority of learning now online, they plan to continue their studies at home during lockdown without fear of being trapped at university over the holiday.
Donelan’s letter, however, stated: “You should not leave your term-time address to return to your parents or carers’ home until at least 2 December and should continue to learn at university for the remainder of this term.
“The reason we are asking you to remain at your university and not to travel home before the new restrictions come into place on Thursday is to prevent any further spread of Covid-19. Any movement around the country will risk the lives of our loved ones.
“I know and appreciate that a number of you may want to be back with your family during this difficult time, but I urge you to stay where you are in order to save lives.”
One mother of a first-year student agreed with the government that it was best for students was to remain on campus, but said: “I am already hearing that some students have left uni halls over the weekend to travel home and more are planning to ‘escape’ by the end of 4 November, including my son who is adamant he is coming home. He said, ‘I’m coming home, Mum. I’m not staying here on my own. Everyone’s going’.”
Lockdown discussions were also under way on the Student Room online forum. One participant who has decided to go home said: “Even before the lockdown was announced my entire course was pretty much all online – only five in-person sessions over the 10 weeks of term – so I’m not missing out on anything academically. Socially, there are no in-person society events either. So this year sucks.”
Others who have already left for reading week are not planning to return.
Larissa Kennedy, the president of the National Union of Students said: “If I were at university right now, I would not be staying. It’s not feasible for students, many of whom have already been in lockdown for weeks, to continue to be completely isolated over the next month. It could potentially be longer than that. Does that then roll into the end of term and into Christmas?
“Mental health is my key concern. We have already lost one member of the student community to anxiety around lockdown,” she said, referring to the death last month of 19-year-old Finn Kitson, a student at Manchester University.
The NUS has called on the government to provide guidance on how students can leave university safely, both now and at the end of term. The government has said it is committed to getting students home for Christmas but is still to publish details.
In a separate letter to vice-chancellors, Donelan said she wanted all students to have some form of face-to-face learning. It follows earlier guidance from the Cabinet Office that universities “should consider moving to increased levels of online learning where possible” during the four-week lockdown.