The return of university students should be delayed until at least February, similar to the Government’s plans for schools, the Scottish Liberal Democrats have said.
A majority of school pupils will not return for in-person teaching until February at the earliest and Willie Rennie has now called for universities to follow suit.
Universities will stagger the return of undergraduate students to campuses over at least six weeks, under the Scottish Government’s current plan announced before the latest lockdown measures were introduced.
In a letter to university and college principals on Monday, universities minister Richard Lochhead said the Government were considering changes to the staggered approach and indicated that students due to return after January 25 could face longer delays.
Most undergraduates have been told to expect teaching to be online initially and advised to only return to campuses and term-time accommodation when notified to do so by their universities.
But amid another lockdown and rising coronavirus infections, the Scottish Lib Dem leader has called for all university returns to be delayed.
Mr Rennie said: “Students and universities have been left in the dark once again about the start of the new term.
“They should be advised without delay that in-person teaching won’t start until after February.
“Before students returned to universities in the autumn, I warned that this was going to be the biggest movement of people since the pandemic began and called for testing to be put in place to protect students and the communities in which they live.
“Instead, the Scottish Government’s indecision and lack of preparation allowed the virus to be seeded across Scotland.
“Students need clarity about what their studies will look like for the forthcoming year. They need to know if there will be in person teaching and how it will be phased in.
“Many students are stuck paying for student accommodation or private housing far from home.
“The Government will need to ensure that these students are supported with a proper rent rebate. Many of them have made huge sacrifices to keep others safe, they should not be punished financially for doing so.”
Calling for routine, asymptomatic testing for college and university students, Mr Rennie added: “There is also more to be done to help unwell students to get additional support from universities and local health professionals and mental health support services.
“We need to see the universities minister set out detailed plans this week to ensure that students are not left hung out to dry.”
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “We are looking urgently this week, working with universities, unions and student representatives, as to whether any further changes are required to the planned staggered return for university students.
“As set out in existing guidance, the message to students remains that they should not return to their term-time accommodation until in-person teaching resumes, as advised by their institution.”