Universities ‘strongly encouraged’ to hold graduations this year by universities minister

Michelle Donelan told The Tab she accepts May 17th return news is ‘disappointing’

The UK government’s universities minister has said she “strongly encourages” universities to hold graduation ceremonies this year.

Michelle Donelan also acknowledged the news in-person teaching will not resume until at least May 17th is “disappointing”, as well as too late for some students.

Universities across the country, including UCL, Exeter, Cardiff, York, St Andrews and Bristol, have already cancelled this year’s graduation or pushed it back until 2022 due to uncertainties or concerns about ongoing government restrictions on large-scale events.

In an interview with The Tab, Donelan said she would personally “strongly encourage” unis to hold graduation ceremonies this year, so long as it was in line with the government’s coronavirus restrictions at the time.

She said: “From my position, I would strongly encourage universities, if it is in line with the restrictions, to hold graduation ceremonies.”

UK universities are autonomous in law, meaning each individual university can decide what to do regarding graduation ceremonies.

Donelan said the government’s roadmap out of lockdown “is set to leave us restriction free by June 21st”, and she is working with universities to “build back some of that student experience and add extra value, given just the sheer extent of what students have been through over the last year.”

When York final years learnt their graduation will now be in 2022, their VC highlighted other large-scale events, such as Glastonbury, that have now been cancelled. York said it’s “extremely unlikely” large crowds will be able to be brought together for graduation in July this year, whilst UEA said it hopes by the time of 2022 graduation ceremonies, coronavirus will be “under greater control” and social restrictions will have “completely lifted”.

Exeter told its students the decision to postpone graduation until 2022 was because it’s “not possible to plan any large-scale in-person events with any certainty” due to the government’s “cautious” roadmap, saying: “There can be no guarantees that further restrictions will have been lifted by the summer.”

UCL told its students of “uncertainty” around government guidance, and Bristol similarly said there is “unpredictability” regarding large indoor events, despite the government roadmap saying large-scale events should be able to take place from June 21st.

Speaking to The Tab, Donelan also acknowledged the news of return to in-person teaching by May 17th is “disappointing” for students who wanted to go back to university sooner.

She said the last year has been “difficult” and “very challenging” for students, particularly with regard to mental health, and says she would have liked to be able to give students more guidance throughout the coronavirus pandemic.

She said: “Of course throughout the pandemic, we would have liked to have been in a position where we could have given them more clarity and sooner. But what we wanted to do was provide as much time as we could to do a robust review, which we always said we would do over the Easter holidays to give us the maximum chance of getting those final students back to university as quickly as we possibly can.

“I fully acknowledge that some students wanted to be back now and it’s disappointing news they can’t get back to the 17th May, but at least they can now know the roadmap that we have outlined. But of course, that is still subject to the data being reviewed with the four tests.”

Some have criticised the back-to-uni date of May 17th as being too late, as many students will be done with teaching for the academic year by then.

Donelan said: “I fully acknowledge and you’re quite right, a number of students will finish their course around about that date or just before, but we wanted to give students the opportunity to go back if they want to for that broader student experience.”

She also pointed to courses and universities for which the academic year goes beyond May 17th, saying: “So it does add value”.

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