Students could be excluded from campus if they do not follow rules on social distancing, a university leader has warned.
Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell, vice-chancellor of Manchester University and chair of the Russell Group, said students will face sanctions if they flout restrictions to limit the spread of coronavirus.
Addressing the Science and Technology Committee as students prepare to return to campuses across the country for freshers’ week, Dame Nancy, chairwoman of the Russell Group, said: “We’re not in a normal situation and we’re very strongly stressing to students that they must behave differently.”
The warning came after Boris Johnson announced that social gatherings of more than six people will be banned in England from Monday in a bid to tackle rising coronavirus cases.
The Prime Minister has pleaded with students not to socialise in larger groups when term starts.
A group of universities across the Greater Manchester region have warned students they will be sanctioned if they break rules on social interactions when they return to university this month.
When asked what these sanctions will be, Dame Nancy told MPs: “Initially a warning of course, potentially something more significant, and ultimately – and I hope it doesn’t come to this – it will be exclusion from the university if they fail to adhere to what is an important safety issue.”
Committee member Aaron Bell, Conservative MP for Newcastle-under-Lyme, asked vice-chancellors whether there is guidance on how Covid-secure socialising can take place on campus.
He said: “Is there a danger that if we are too draconian about what happens on campuses themselves we push more students off campus?”
Professor Julia Buckingham, president and chair of Universities UK (UUK) and vice-chancellor of Brunel University, said: “I think universities want to be proportionate in their approach.
“So while yes we will deal firmly with students, as Nancy indicated we will probably start with a firm warning and if they are repeat offenders then of course we will deal with it much, much more firmly.”
University leaders said they did not believe coronavirus outbreaks would occur as a result of academic lessons restarting this term – but they expressed concerns about student activity off campus.
Dame Nancy said: “I’m very confident that there will not be any spread of infections through teaching in our universities. We’ve taken every measure imaginable.
“Of course one concern for all of us is off-campus behaviour. And I think we’re all imposing quite strict codes of practice with sanctions if students do not adhere to those.
“Because it’s not just the safety of the students and the staff, we’re also concerned to protect the safety of our local residents and our communities.”
Professor Sir Anton Muscatelli, principal and vice-chancellor of the University of Glasgow, added that he had “little concern” about the potential spread of coronavirus on campus.
He added: “We are minimising the amount of face-to-face contact but, as colleagues have also stressed, we’re working very hard to ensure that we stress to our students that their conduct off campus is what they need to be mindful of.”
Universities are still awaiting guidance from the Department of Education (DfE) on how they can safely reopen to students.
Mr Johnson told a press conference that updated guidance will include a “request not to send students home in the event of an outbreak so as to avoid spreading the virus across the country”.
Professor Buckingham said university leaders – who are largely planning to welcome students on campus this month – are concerned that students will have to “travel some distance” in order to get tested.
She said: “We are all looking at ways in which we can improve testing on campus because that is a major issue for all of us.”
Speaking on Wednesday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the Government’s new limitations on social gatherings in England from Monday would apply to students returning for freshers’ week.
He told LBC: “Obviously it is not something I would want to do, but unfortunately, yes, because otherwise we know the spread of the disease is going to keep going up and up.”