Students arrive on Scottish campuses as uncertainty swirls around universities and Covid-19

University students have begun the process of returning to campuses across Scotland despite uncertainty around whether they should return at all.

Some undergraduate students at Edinburgh University began returning to campus on Monday as part of the previously agreed staggered return of students to universities across the country despite major uncertainty.

Nicola Sturgeon has said she is looking “very urgently” at potential changes to the rules for students, with an update expected later in the week.

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However, many students will be returning to cities this week, with Glasgow University students beginning teaching on January 11.

A student wearing a protective face mask outside the main library at the University of Edinburgh in George Square, Edinburgh
A student wearing a protective face mask outside the main library at the University of Edinburgh in George Square, Edinburgh

Other students at other universities will see students return later in January due to later semester dates, but in any normal year students would be beginning to travel back to campus from the first weekend of January, with students being warned they may have to change their plans at the last moment.

Universities are also awaiting guidance from the Scottish Government about changes to restrictions around in-person and online teaching

The uncertainty was criticised by the National Union of Students with Matt Crilly, NUS Scotland president, calling for online learning to be the “default position”. He called for rent rebates for students paying for accommodation they are unable to access.

Mr Crilly said: “NUS Scotland continues to call for online learning to be the default position. That way no student has to be on campus unless absolutely necessary and every student can make an informed decision about whether they want to return to their student accommodation.

"Students are being expected to pay rent for at least six weeks for accommodation they can't use. That is grossly unfair.

"We are seeking urgent clarity from the Scottish Government and universities to ensure no student is left out of pocket and that every university has a no-detriment policy in place, so no student is academically disadvantaged.”

The Scottish Government has previously said rent is a matter for universities.

A spokesman for Universities Scotland said: “We are seeking urgent clarity from Scottish Government about what changes they plan to the staggered resumption of in-person teaching, in the light of the changed prevalence of the virus in society.

"We want to give students as much certainty as possible and any student who is currently unsure about what to do should contact their university for their latest guidance.”

Asked whether university students should continue with their plans to return to campus, Ms Sturgeon told BBC’s Good Morning Scotland that students would receive an update later this week.

She said: “We already have a staggered return over a six week period for universities and colleges, so students will have been told by their own university when to come back.

“We are looking, very urgently this week at whether we have and should extend that period even further and the higher education minister here will set out any further details on that later in the week.

"As things stand at the moment students will have been advised by their universities if and when they should be returning after the Christmas break.”

Students returning to campus in September is widely understood to be a main driver of the second wave of Covid-19 during the autumn, with fears the impact of the new variant could be further accelerated by the return of students in January.

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