Williamson sets out plan to allow students in England home for Christmas

Some students in England would need to self-isolate and their classes be shifted online in order to go home for Christmas, the education secretary has announced.

In a statement to the Commons on students’ return to universities, which has so far resulted in Covid-19 outbreaks at 50 UK campuses, Gavin Williamson said his department would be issuing guidance on allowing students to return home over the Christmas break.

“We are going to work with universities to make sure that all students are supported to return home safely and spend Christmas with their loved ones, if they choose to do so,” he said. “Where there are specific circumstances that warrant it, there may be a requirement for some students to self-isolate at the end of term. And we will be working with the sector to ensure this will be possible, including ending in-person learning early, if that is deemed to be necessary.”

Asked by Yvette Cooper, the Labour MP, to clarify, Williamson said: “All youngsters who want to be able return home will be able to do so, but what we will look at is … where there are specific cases.” He said that in “specific local circumstances we would look at shifting to online learning, solely in order to be able to ensure that all students are able to return and have the benefit of being able to be with their families for Christmas. But we envisage that to be a very small number of universities.”

Williamson also announced he would be seeking to dock vice-chancellors’ bonuses because of what he called the “crisis”.

Laura Trott, the Conservative MP for Sevenoaks, asked Williamson to consider stopping university leaders receiving bonuses this year unless fees were lowered for students having to take online courses. He replied that the question was “incredibly important”, and said “excessive vice-chancellor pay” remained a problem and he would ask the higher education regulator for England, the Office for Students, to intervene.

“I’ll be asking for the Office for Students to look at this and give very strong and clear steers on this matter, to ensure that there aren’t bonuses going out as a result of this crisis,” he said.

Williamson rejected claims by Labour MPs that the government had failed to prepare for the return of about a million students to campuses in England, and instead praised universities for their efforts.

He said it was “inevitable” that students would contract coronavirus, and that his department had been working with the Department of Health to enable “sufficient and appropriate” provision of testing.

Labour’s Kate Green, the shadow education secretary, said students were anxious and angry at the lack of support and testing, and had been “let down by the government, just as it let down many of these same students with its handling of exam results last month”.

“We can’t forget that at the heart of this crisis are thousands of young people, many away from home for the first time, many now isolated with a group of people who are practically strangers. We can only imagine how hard it is for them,” Green said.

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