University campuses in Scotland will stay closed to the vast majority of students until March amid rising fears about a new, more transmissible strain of Covid-19.

The Scottish Government has announced students will be taught online throughout January and February, with the vast majority not expected back on campuses until the start of March, as part of a revised plan.

Only very small numbers of students will be allowed back on campus this month, such as those who have remained over the winter break, those whose attendance is critical and whose education cannot be delivered remotely or postponed, essential placements, or for reasons of student well-being.

Where attendance is time-sensitive to the ability to graduate and cannot be delivered remotely or further postponed, very limited numbers of students may be able to return from mid-February. 

All arrangements are subject to a future review of Covid-19 conditions.

Colleges will follow the level guidance for their local authority area which, in practice, means that, with limited exemptions, the majority of college students' studies will be on-line and remote during January and into February.

Student leaders have welcomed the decision to delay the phased return of students to campuses but warned that guidance which was "short-term and open-ended" could result in students paying for accommodation they cannot use. 

Richard Lochhead, Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science, said: "These changes reflect the current status of the virus, the reality of the new strain, and the rise in cases in recent weeks.

“The return of students to campus, including returning to term-time accommodation, involves the mass movement of thousands of people across the country. The mixing of people on that scale, including the potential movement of tens of thousands of students to university halls and private-rented flats, simply isn’t safe right now. It would fuel the virus, and that is something no one wants.

“Our immediate priority right now is to say to students, other than in specific special circumstances, they must not return to their campus or term-time accommodation before they are specifically told to do so by their institution.

HeraldScotland: A student walks past a sign at Glasgow University's Murano Street student village in September, when campuses were hit by serious Covid outbreaks.A student walks past a sign at Glasgow University's Murano Street student village in September, when campuses were hit by serious Covid outbreaks.

“For the overwhelming majority of university students, this means all learning will be online-only at least for January and February, and students should not expect to return to campus or student accommodation before the end of February.

“We will review plans in light of the state of the pandemic nearer the time, but right now even the very limited number of returns that were previously planned for phase 2 of the restart dates, cannot happen until at least the middle of next month for the majority of students, supported by rapid-result testing on arrival.

“We would like to thank everyone for their patience and fortitude in dealing with the pandemic over past months, and we understand this is more difficult news – but we want to give students and staff as much certainty as we can so they can plan effectively. That’s why we are setting this plan out now.

“As we have all seen, this virus moves fast and changes quickly but even in light of that reality, hopefully by setting out a clear plan that gives certainly for at least the next two months, everyone can now plan with a greater degree of confidence.”

Matt Crilly, NUS Scotland President, said: “While a delay to the phased return is welcome, we are concerned that guidance that is short-term and open-ended will result in students paying for accommodation they cannot use.

“NUS Scotland continues to urge the Scottish Government to commit to online learning as the default position for the semester ahead with exceptions for practical and lab based courses. That way no student is on campus unless absolutely necessary and every student will have the certainty they need to leave their accommodation contracts early. If students don’t need to return this semester they should be told now.

“As things stand, students are being expected to pay expensive rent for accommodation they can't use. The Scottish Government must intervene and make urgent financial support available to ensure no student is left out of pocket.

“We welcome that guidance - which is much needed - will be published in the coming days. This must clarify how the new regulations apply to students, and the exceptions that are in place.”

The news has been welcomed by the University and College Union, which had called for classes to be moved online.

“After a week of uncertainly it is welcome news that learning in universities will be online only," said Mary Senior, UCU's Scotland official. 

A Universities Scotland spokesman said: "At a time when the virus is surging and its judged too dangerous for schools to be open, it is critical that university Principals adhere fully to the new guidance and do not look for loopholes or excuses to bring staff and students onto campuses.

“In light of the high prevalence of the virus across the country, it is appropriate that there should be an increased staggering of the return of students to campus. We look forward to receiving the full guidance so our universities can provide updates and advice to students as soon as possible.

“We recognise that many students will have a significant delay in returning to term-time accommodation. We are in discission with Scottish Government about the need to support the costs of unused accommodation. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, our universities have been guided by public health advice and the safety of our students and staff.

"This will continue and we will do all we can to support students studying from home and whose who continue to reside in university accommodation.”