University students will start term from home after the Christmas holidays and should only return to campuses when advised to do so by institutions, John Swinney has announced.

In a statement to the Scottish Parliament, the Education Secretary also said they would be asked to restrict their social interaction for two weeks either side of their return to university.

It is aimed at containing the spread of coronavirus in the new year.

However, the announcement has drawn criticism from student leaders, who are concerned about lack of detail and guidance.   

They are also worried about the impact on students' mental health.

Matt Crilly, NUS Scotland President, said: “Students have been asking for clarity about what the next semester will look like for them. Unfortunately, today’s announcement has come too late in the day, without the necessary detail and accompanying guidance.

“We are concerned about the mental health implications of asking students to reduce their social mixing for 28 days in total.

"Students, it seems, are also being expected to pay rent for six weeks for accommodation they can't use. That is grossly unfair. We will be seeking urgent clarity from the Scottish Government and universities to ensure no student is left out of pocket.

“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."

Alastair Sim, Director of Universities Scotland said: “Today’s announcement affirms the importance of students having access to in-person learning and support next term. We believe this is important for students’ learning, welfare and retention.

“The requirement for a staggered return will require urgent adaptations to timetables and teaching resources to give students the learning experience they deserve. We need urgently to see detailed guidance from Scottish Government to give substance to today’s high-level announcement. 

“A staggered return and a Government policy that discourages students from returning to their accommodation at the beginning of term raises many questions in relation to students’ accommodation contracts, with potentially major cost implications at a time when institutions are under very serious financial pressure.

"We look forward to urgent discussion of this with the Scottish Government in the interests of supporting students, supporting institutions and making the guidance operationally effective.”