University leaders fear all students in England may not be allowed to return to campus for in-person activities until mid-May at the earliest.
Ministers must not take students’ “resilience for granted” when deciding when they can resume face-to-face experiences, vice-chancellors have warned.
Universities UK (UUK), which represents vice-chancellors, says institutions want students back on campus “as soon as possible after Easter” to offer them in-person activities and catch-up support.
The majority of students in England – apart from those on critical courses – were told not return to campus as part of the lockdown announced in January.
University students on practical courses, who require specialist equipment and facilities, began returning to face-to-face teaching on March 8 in England.
For all remaining students, the Government has said it will review options for students to return to face-to-face lessons by the end of the Easter holidays.
But there are concerns in the higher education sector that the Government could delay the final phase of student returns to May 17.
University leaders argue that a return to campus on April 12 would benefit students’ mental health and development after months of remote learning.
Professor Julia Buckingham, president of UUK, said: “University students have been extremely tolerant in the face of huge disruption and a radically different experience this year, and have willingly made sacrifices in the interests of public safety. But the Government must not take their resilience for granted.
“Universities are fully prepared and looking forward to welcoming students back to Covid-secure environments as soon as possible after Easter, with a variety of enriching activities on offer including in-person teaching, access to study spaces, studios and sports facilities, alongside additional support and catch-up programmes for those due to graduate this year.”
She added that universities had proven the safety measures put in place – including asymptomatic testing and face coverings – have enabled “effective management of the virus” on campuses.
Prof Buckingham said: “When making this decision, we urge the Government to take account of the rigorous Covid safety measures universities have implemented as well as the clear benefits for students of an April 12 return.”
Dr Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group, which represents the most selective universities in the UK, said: “We are particularly concerned about the impact on student mental health and that some students may not be able to take part in extra activities universities have planned for the rest of the year that would aim to boost employability, consolidate learning and help build networks that could be vital for their future success.
“Our universities have worked hard to make campuses Covid-secure, with twice-weekly testing and very low overall infection rates on campus despite the majority of students now being back in their term-time accommodation.
“Given the lack of evidence that it would represent a risk in terms of an increased spread of Covid, we would urge the Government to allow all remaining students to have the opportunity to resume in-person teaching from April 12.”
But University and College Union general secretary Dr Jo Grady said it “smacks of self-interest” and risks the safety of staff, students and the public.
She said: “Universities should not now be asking hundreds of thousands of students to return for in-person teaching after Easter when most courses will only have revision classes and exams left.
“It will be much safer to remain online until the start of the next academic year when many more people will have been vaccinated.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “This has been a difficult time for students, and we are committed to getting all students back into university as soon as the public health situation allows.
“Students on practical and creative courses started returning from March 8, and we will be reviewing options for the timing of the return of all remaining students by the end of the Easter holidays.
“Decisions will take into account the need to protect progress across the wider road map out of the pandemic, including the spread of the virus in communities and pressures on the NHS.”