Students who cannot return to term-time accommodation because of new Covid-19 restrictions must be refunded, ministers have been told.

It comes after the Scottish Government announced classes would be taught online throughout January and February, with the vast majority not expected back on campuses until the start of March.

The move is in response to a new, fast-spreading strain of coronavirus.

Only very small numbers of students will be allowed 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, those on 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 will be subject to a future review of Covid-19 conditions.

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

Universities Scotland, which represents higher education institutions north of the Border, said it was in discussion with the Scottish Government about "the need to the need to support the costs of unused accommodation".

Scottish Conservative shadow education spokesman, Jamie Greene MSP, said: “The SNP Government must urgently deliver rent refunds to students who will now suffer financially through no fault of their own.

“We need to see this money getting to students immediately, not months down the line when they’re already out of pocket.”

Beatrice Wishart, education spokesperson for the Scottish Liberal Democrats said: "Students want to do the right thing but many remain in the dark about what exactly is permitted under the new lockdown rules.

HeraldScotland: A student at Glasgow University's Murano Street student village, which was among university sites hit by Covid outbreaks last year.A student at Glasgow University's Murano Street student village, which was among university sites hit by Covid outbreaks last year.

"Students still have questions about accessing learning materials left in term-time accommodation and on rules around forming and re-forming households. In the middle of this cold snap they might be liable for problems in properties that they are not allowed to attend.

"They need urgent answers to help them make them make safe decisions to ensure they are in the best place to begin in the new term."

She added: "News today that online learning will continue throughout February also means many will be stuck paying for student accommodation or private housing they can’t use.

"The Government should ensure these students are treated fairly and are supported with a proper rebate. Many of them have made huge sacrifices to keep others safe, they should not be punished financially for doing so.”

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.”

Richard Lochhead, Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science, said detailed sectoral guidance would be published as soon as possible next week, but that his basic message to students remains that they should not return to their term-time accommodation until in-person teaching resumes, as advised by their institution.

"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," he said.

“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.”

On the subject of accommodation and rent refunds, a Scottish Government spokesperson said: “We have no direct role in the provision of student residential accommodation, whether that is managed by universities or private sector organisations. These are judgments that universities and providers have got to make in contact and consultation with their student community, and it's right and appropriate that that is undertaken.

“We encourage accommodation providers to come to an appropriate resolution of issues around tenancy agreements and rent payments. Our focus is on the public health emergency to keep students, staff and wider society safe, but we are aware that there is a financial impact and our discussions with the sector will be continuing. Any student facing additional hardship as a result of Covid-19 should apply for financial support from the FE/HE Discretionary Funds.”