Students at the University of St Andrews have been told not to expect to come back to the university until September. In a letter sent to students the university said that courses will remain online for the rest of this semester,  running until the end of May, when the academic year ends for most students. A small number of exceptions will be made for medical students, science students, and postgraduates.

Writing to students, the university’s principal and vice-chancellor, Sally Mapstone, said the decision had been made based on the expectation that the Scottish government will continue to enforce significant restrictions on travel and other activities in coming months. Under such circumstances Mapstone said the university would not be able to bring back large numbers of students or provide adequate in-person teaching.

She said:

“I know that this will be a big disappointment to many students, and staff, who had hoped to return to St Andrews and our classrooms in this academic year. This is especially true for many of our final year students who will be unable to conclude their studies in St Andrews in the way we had all hoped.

We are acting now, however, to provide you with as much certainty as early as we can, having listened carefully to student leaders and our staff, and considered all the evidence available to us on the predicted course of the pandemic.

I am so sorry that our University and the town will be missing so many of you in the remaining weeks of teaching, and that your university experience continues to be disrupted by the pandemic and its attendant restrictions on all our lives.

We are taking this step, however, in the certainty that we can fulfil all students’ learning outcomes, and continue to provide our hallmark high quality learning, contact, and support online.”

Universities Minister Michelle Donelan said:

“We know this is a difficult time for students and we have prioritised their education and wellbeing from the start of the pandemic.

“Measures are currently in place to reduce transmission and the majority of students should not return to university, and should study from their current residence where possible until at least 8 March.

“We will have a clearer picture of the data and pressures on the NHS by mid-February, at which point we can set out further details on our approach to the wider reopening of education settings, including universities, as part of our plan for leaving lockdown.”

This decision by St Andrews raises the prospect of similar decisions by other universities in Scotland and the rest of the UK. One ray of hope for students who want their universities to reopen might be that some institutions might simply cancel the current term in hope that things may reopen for the final part of the academic year in early summer, if all is going well with vaccines. Still, even in this best case scenario millions of students face spending an entire academic year without setting foot in the universities they are paying thousands of pounds a year to attend. Universities relying on student rents to make ends meet are looking at a deepening hole in their already perilous finances.