The Labor Party said Education Secretary Gavin Williamson should consider delaying the start of the fall term until mass tests on the Covid-19 campus or distance learning options are available.
The call came after thousands of students in Glasgow, Manchester and Edinburgh were ordered to self-isolate following outbreaks linked to freshman week, with some accusing their universities of “False imprisonment”.
Manchester Metropolitan University conceded on Sunday it had been unable to prevent students from leaving their accommodation after human rights lawyers questioned the legality of a lockdown imposed by staff of security.
University vice-chancellor Professor Malcolm Press said he was confident up to 1,700 students confined to the Birley campus or Cambridge Halls would “do the right thing” and follow government guidelines in terms of self-isolation.
He claimed that it would be “unfair to the students” for the new academic year to be delayed or canceled, adding: “The government places a high priority on universities which remain open and offer high quality education.”
But Labor’s parallel education secretary Kate Green suggested a delay was needed to ensure adequate distance learning and coronavirus testing available to students.
She also asked the education secretary to promise that the students would not be prevented from going home for Christmas.
“The universities have done everything they can to prepare for the safe return of students, but the government has not played its part,” Green said in a letter to Gavin Williamson. “You let the kids down with the exam fiasco this summer and now a lot of those same students are left behind again. These young people deserve better than your incompetence. “
Ms Green added: “It is unthinkable that students would be locked in their rooms and unable to return home to spend Christmas with their families. The government must promise that this will not happen and work with universities to allow every student access to the tests. that they can return home safely.
“” The government should also consider a postponement of the start of the quarter or a pause in migration for universities where the quarter has not yet started to allow improvements in testing capacity and distance learning offerings. .
“Gavin Williamson needs to come to Parliament urgently and explain how he will resolve the critical situation in our universities that is causing such anxiety for families across the country. “
Shadow Justice Secretary David Lammy also called on the government to correct its “pathetic” testing and traceability program to allow students to return home for Christmas.
He added: “The students are done with their A level, they have finished the week of the first year, the government is now threatening to lock them up in the university. We want young people to go home with their families on Christmas and they need testing to make sure that can happen. “
Union leaders said their warnings to Manchester Metropolitan University officials “had not been heeded” before the coronavirus outbreak among at least 127 students prompted city council to impose the lockdown on Friday evening.
Hours later, as students put up posters criticizing Boris Johnson and compared their residences to a prison, human rights lawyers questioned whether local authorities and universities had the legal authority to lock up the students in their rooms.
A Liverpool-based company has offered its ‘pro bono’ services to challenge the ruling, when the restrictions could amount to bogus imprisonment.
The students said they remained “scared and confused” after the police arrived at the gates and the security guards refused to let them go to buy food.
The university has since pledged to support all residents staying in the affected rooms, including Asda’s food deliveries.
Meanwhile, the bosses of Glasgow and Edinburgh universities have come under fire for banning students from returning home or visiting pubs and restaurants following a set of cases.
This prompted the Scottish government to issue updated guidelines allowing students to ‘change homes’ and return home after their study residency.
Higher Education Minister Richard Lochhead said: ‘We know that many students may find it difficult not to be able to return home to visit family and other support networks, especially if it is is the first time in their life that they have been away from home.
“Knowing what to consider when deciding to return home will help promote well-being and allow students to make informed choices, but it’s important to stress that adjusting to life away from home is always a challenge. “
The government has rejected calls to delay the return of students to university after unions called the situation “chaotic.”
Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden admitted the start of the fall semester was “not as it would be” due to the crisis, but said students should still pay tuition as they go. and as they learned.
He also insisted that students had “clear guidelines to follow,” as he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: “Young people have paid a huge price during this crisis and I think it’s fair trying to get them back.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Education said: “The government is working closely with universities to ensure that they are well prepared for returning students, and we have published tips to help them ensure the return. student and staff safety.
“We will continue to monitor the situation very closely and follow the advice of Public Health England, adjusting policies to better support students and providers. “