The new UK Government guidance for universities - what does it mean?

By Nicole Wootton-Cane• Last updated: Oct 31, 2023
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The government has published new guidance for universities and colleges in the UK as thousands of students prepare to move across the country in the coming weeks to start the new academic year.

Students have been warned that they must be prepared for localised campus lockdowns in the event of coronavirus outbreaks at universities, as additional movement would risk spreading the virus even further.

The biggest developments in the guidelines provide more detailed advice on how universities can manage the mass movement of students across the country and onto campuses, and follow the changes to the law in England announced yesterday, which will mean that people cannot gather in groups larger than six.

Here are the key takeaways from the updated guidance, and what that means for universities.

In-person teaching will go ahead - but not everyone agrees

The new ‘rule of six’ instruction does not apply if gatherings are for work or education purposes, meaning that in-person lectures, seminars, and labs, can still go ahead. 

The updated guidance tells universities that they should only transition to fully online learning as a “last resort”. 

However, the government has been criticised for encouraging university students to return to campus this September. 

The University and College Union (UCU) have urged universities to consider moving as much teaching online as possible, calling the movement of students a “recipe for disaster”.

Local outbreaks

Universities have been told that they must have a plan in place in the event that a local COVID-19 outbreak occurs, whether this is in a larger area (such as the city the university is located in), or a more localised outbreak on campus or in a hall of residence. 

The most important takeaway from the guidance is students must not return home in the event of a localised lockdown, as this would increase the risk of transmitting the infection across the country. 

The guidance sets out four tiers of response to the virus, which go from the default position (tier one), which recommends the provision of blended learning alongside the use of face coverings, to last resort (tier four), which sees the majority of teaching moved online. 

Social distancing on campus

The guidance tells universities that they are responsible for ensuring that social distancing takes place on campus. Students will preferably be kept two metres apart from each other, but in cases where this is not possible, one metre is permissible if appropriate mitigations are in place. This could include good ventilation and the use of face coverings. 

Households in halls

Students moving into halls will need to form new household units. These will be the groups in which you will manage any response to a suspected or confirmed positive case. The guidance makes clear that these groups should be small and correspond to the flats or floors that students live on - households should be groups that share the same bathroom and kitchen. 


Segments are small sub-networks of staff and students that consistently interact with each other. Introducing segmentation means that these groups could interact with fewer restrictions.

Universities have been told that dividing students and staff into segments could be the most effective way to “manage and mitigate risks” and “make it easier to identify and limit those who need to take action in the event of a case or outbreak”. 

Segmentation is the method likely to be used by many universities to manage students in accommodation and subject groups that require more extensive face-to-face contact, such as those courses that include labs.

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Face coverings

The guidelines state that face coverings should be worn by staff and students in situations where social distancing is difficult to maintain outside of teaching - so namely corridors, libraries, and other communal areas. 

They are not mandatory in teaching scenarios such as lectures and seminars, although the guidance does state that face coverings should be worn where practical work requires close contact.

Universities should also enforce the use of face coverings where social distancing is difficult to maintain or good ventilation is difficult to provide, and during social activities that are allowed to go ahead. 

However, several universities have already announced their intention to make students and staff wear masks during teaching regardless of social distancing and ventilation. 

Staff and student wellbeing

There is recognition that the pandemic has put significant pressure on both student and staff mental health, and the services that usually help manage these issues. The government and Office for Students have launched the Safe Space platform that “seeks to bridge gaps in mental health support for students arising from this unprecedented situation”.

The platform will work alongside existing mental health support, and is an online resource that gives users access to a variety of mental health and wellbeing advice and support.

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