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Students can call helpline if they have concerns about Covid-19, UK minister says

A sign in a window at The Forge student accommodation at Sheffield Hallam University which has seen a rise in the number of Covid-19 cases among its students.

By Eleanor Busby, PA Education Correspondent

Students can call a new helpline if they have concerns about Covid-19, the universities minister has said.

Michelle Donelan announced that the Department for Education (DfE) is launching a hotline this week – in conjunction with Public Health England (PHE) – dedicated to university staff and students.

The minister said it would be “unacceptable” for students to pay high tuition fees if an institution fails to provide support or high-quality provision.

Ms Donelan added that universities have the power to lower tuition fees if they do not believe they are providing a quality learning experience.

Her comments to MPs come after more than 50 universities in the UK have confirmed cases of coronavirus, as thousands of undergraduates have returned to campus for the start of the autumn term.

A surge in cases has led to thousands of students having to self-isolate in their accommodation.

More than 400 students at Nottingham University tested positive for Covid-19 last week, and more than 750 students are self-isolating at Northumbria University after testing positive.

The universities minister suggested that some Covid-19 spikes on campuses could be due to socialising.

When asked whether the DfE had commissioned work to model predicted outbreak rates in student halls, Ms Donelan said: “A lot of this depends on student behaviour in terms of the outbreaks.”

“The vast majority of students are abiding by all of the rules and their behaviour is exemplary, and that’s the message that’s been reiterated by vice chancellors.”

“However, the minority have been sometimes socialising in a way that’s not fit with the guidance, and that’s why we’ve seen some of these spikes on the whole arising.”

She told the Education Select Committee: “Some were because some students may have arrived with Covid and not realised, but on the whole they did the socialising.”

“So we can never predict human behaviour to know how it would happen.”

When asked whether the new Covid-19 helpline can be used by undergraduates, she said: “Students could ring it if they had concerns, if they were thinking that things weren’t working the way they should.”

Her comments come as Universities UK (UUK), an organisation representing vice-chancellors, has pledged to support students who have to self-isolate in university halls when campus outbreaks occur.

Institutions should make sure that students have access to basic necessities during self-isolation, including food, laundry services, cleaning materials, bin bags, tissues and toilet roll, UUK has said.

Ms Donelan faced questions from MPs on whether students will be able to return home during the autumn term – as well as for the Christmas break.

The universities minister said the DfE was working with institutions to bring forward the end of term to ensure students who need to quarantine can still return safely to their families in time for Christmas.

She said: “What won’t change is the fact that students can go home for Christmas. Whatever happens we will make sure that is a possibility.”

Ms Donelan added: “We are going to ensure that we move forward the end of term time where necessary.”

“Potentially the last two weeks being online in some cases so if a student did catch Covid towards the end of term, or who were self-isolating then they would finish that self-isolation in time for Christmas.”

Ms Donelan told MPs that universities could push back the start of the 2021-22 academic year “quite straightforwardly” if A-level exams are pushed back.

Her comments come after education unions met with schools minister Nick Gibb and Ofqual chief Glenys Stacey about the timetable of the 2021 exams.

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