University bosses have warned that student wellbeing and academic progress are approaching a "tipping point" and want ministers to provide urgent clarity on arrangements for in-person learning during the 2021-22 session.

It comes after a poll of over 500 students showed nearly three quarters (73 per cent) had experienced a strong or slight increase in anxiety as a result of pandemic-related disruption to teaching.

And 80% said the situation was having a strong or slightly negative impact on their academic progress.

Pollsters, led by YouthSight, spoke to 552 individuals last month. Participants were either studying at one of Scotland’s 19 universities or had applied to do so.

Ninety per cent agreed or strongly agreed that they would be missing out on important aspects of university life if there were still restrictions in place next year. Seventy-six per cent agreed or strongly agreed it was important that the majority of learning be held face-to-face.

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Many applicants have already accepted offers to study from September in order to meet a June 10 deadline set by the Universities and Colleges Admission Service (UCAS).

The deadline is significant as institutions estimate an eight-week planning horizon is necessary for timetabling degree programmes and reconfiguring estates.

While the academic year starts in September for most, thousands of pre-session students will have teaching in July and August. However, universities have no details on what physical distancing arrangements should be in place for those individuals. 

As concern over the uncertainty grows, principals say a ministerial update is desperately needed.

HeraldScotland: Jamie Hepburn is Scotland's new minister for further and higher education.Jamie Hepburn is Scotland's new minister for further and higher education.

Alastair Sim, Director of Universities Scotland, said: “University students have shown tremendous resilience in spite of all the disruptions to their education and wider way of life but we’re concerned that we’re reaching a tipping point in regard to student wellbeing and risk to progression unless we can move ahead to a more normal student learning experience in the early autumn.

"Access to education, at all levels, should be a priority as society re-opens."

Last year saw classes delivered on a hybrid online/in-person basis. However, two-metre physical distancing requirements significantly limited the numbers of students who could benefit from face-to-face teaching.

Bosses have stressed there are no known cases of Covid-19 transmission within higher education environments.

“Universities need clarity within the next couple of weeks about what the Scottish Government’s Covid guidance will be for the new term," added Mr Sim.

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"Students need clarity that they can expect a step-change in access to safe in-person teaching. It’s not a case of simply throwing open the shutters.

"Universities have to timetable the education of over 250,000 students and hundreds if not thousands of different degree programme configurations and then set up classrooms and labs according to whatever distancing is required. It’s a gargantuan operation.

“Above all, we want a clear plan from Government and we feel students deserve as much certainty as it is possible to give.

"We need the Scottish Government to give our students, our staff and the institutions themselves clarity about what next academic year is likely to look like, according to where the country is likely to be with the route map and to know how to run our classes if Scotland finds itself in any of the levels from 0-3.”

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Matt Crilly, NUS Scotland President, said: “Students have had a tough year, deprived of the social and learning experience we would usually expect.

“Most students will be eager to return to campus for some normality when we can. However, it’s crucial we avoid the mass outbreaks we saw in halls last year, and we would expect the Government, our universities and colleges to be planning to ensure we are safe.

“We also need certainty as soon as possible, so students can make decisions about living arrangements and finances.”

In letters that were sent to universities and colleges last week, Shirley-Anne Somerville, Scotland's new Education Secretary, said the Government remained "grateful grateful to staff and students for their continued patience, understanding and support as we progress towards greater normality”.

HeraldScotland: Education Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville has written to colleges and universities.Education Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville has written to colleges and universities.

The document states: “The extent of vaccine roll-out and the expected impact on transmission rates mean that we are hopeful that the student experience in the autumn will look more normal, although there will still need to be measures in place that help to prevent transmission.

“As we progress cautiously through the levels, informed by the latest clinical advice, we will continue to work collaboratively with the sector as it intensifies planning for 2021-22, including through the recently established Advanced Learning Covid Recovery Group and on the basis of expert advice provided through the new Covid-19 Advisory Sub-Group on Universities and Colleges.

“It [the Advanced Learning Covid Recovery Group] will work within an overall Scottish Government policy intention to enable in-person provision to the extent consistent with the safety of staff and students, in line with Scotland’s overall response to Covid-19, whilst ensuring the highest quality learning experience possible for students and learners in the circumstances we face.”