Downing Street has said it expects university students will be allowed to return home for Christmas.
Dozens of institutions have reported coronavirus outbreaks in recent days, with hundreds of confirmed cases of COVID-19.
According to Sky News research, at least 33 universities in the UK now have confirmed cases of coronavirus, while another two have suspected cases.
More than 717 cases have been identified among students and staff since universities reopened, according to data collected up to 28 September.
This has resulted in thousands of students having to self-isolate, including around 1,700 students at Manchester Metropolitan University.
Students at that university will be given financial compensation of more than a week’s rent, its vice-chancellor has said.
The outbreaks have raised the prospect of students potentially being asked to stay on campus over Christmas to stop the spread of the disease.
But the prime minister’s official spokesman said on Monday: “We would expect all students to be able to go home at Christmas.”
He said students were subject to the same rules as the wider population in the areas in which they live.
“The rules for students are the same as those for the rest of the public,” the spokesman told reporters at a regular Westminster briefing.
“Universities can obviously issue advice to their students and I believe that’s what has been happening in recent days.”
The University and College Union, which represents academics and university staff, has called on Boris Johnson to make sure that online tuition “becomes the norm”.
Some institutions have adopted a “stubborn position” over insisting upon in-person teaching because they depend on rent from student accommodation, the union claimed.
In a letter to the PM, UCU general secretary Jo Grady said the union was “not prepared to take chances with the health of students, our members and the communities they serve”.
“It is clear that remote learning should be the default for campus life while we are in this precarious position with the virus,” she said.
“However, what we are seeing on the ground is university employers hiding behind the government’s current sectoral guidance, with all the ambiguities associated with the term ‘blended learning’.”
She added that students should be allowed to leave their accommodation and go back home “without fear of financial penalty”.
“We cannot have students forced to quarantine in halls of residence with no familiar support network, or staff forced to carry out work on site that could be conducted more safely from home,” Ms Grady said.
The president of the National Union of Students (NUS) has claimed that those self-isolating were being “trapped” in “disgusting conditions” and missing out on food deliveries.
“I’ve heard from other students who, they’ve turned up with an amount of toilet roll, told with no notice that they’re going to be locked down and wondering where the next roll of toilet roll is coming from,” Larissa Kennedy told ITV’s Good Morning Britain.
While she said that people should follow public health guidance, Ms Kennedy questioned the legality of keeping students “cooped up in that way without that access to the things that they need”.
Manchester Metropolitan University has said it cannot stop students under lockdown leaving their accommodation, but that it expects them to follow the guidance around self-isolation.
The Office for Students, the higher education regulator in England, has promised to investigate if universities “have not taken all reasonable steps to protect standards or where quality is slipping for groups of students”.
OfS president Nicola Dandridge said students had “rights as consumers” and could complain to their university, the Office of the Independent Adjudicator and the OfS.
Asked about the prospect of partial tuition fee refunds, she added: “We would expect a university to consider the circumstances for each student rather than to adopt a blanket policy that refunds are not available.”
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News – Coronavirus: University students expected to be allowed to return home for Christmas, Downing Street says