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UK universities prepare to reopen amid coronavirus-related uncertainty

As universities across Britain prepare to reopen, Health Secretary Matt Hancock issued an urgent plea Thursday to students to follow rules banning gatherings of more than six people in England.

The opening weeks of a new academic year traditionally start with fresher’s events and social events, but the new lockdown rules starting from Monday has placed a limit on gatherings.

Hancock told the House of Commons (lower house of parliament) that he wants students to avoid passing on coronavirus to parents or grandparents.

His plea came as the Department for Education (DoE) issued update guidance Thursday to universities as they prepare to reopen buildings and campuses in September. A record-high number of 18 year olds have signed up this year to study at universities in Britain.

London-based newspaper The Times reported Thursday that surging applications from China are driving a record number of international students heading for British universities this autumn.

Figures from Ucas, Britain’s universities admissions service, showed a record 71,370 overseas students secured places at British universities, 1,200 more than last year. Over 12,000 students from China are due to arrive this autumn, a 23 percent increase from 9,860 last year.

The figures also show that the growth in overseas student numbers has more than compensated for a drop in European Union students. However, experts warned that due to coronavirus-related uncertainty, some students might not take up their places and the next few weeks would be crucial in determining how many would enrol eventually.

Universities Minister Michelle Donelan urged students Thursday to act responsibly as they head to campuses.

“The updated guidance includes recent advice and will help university leaders access the information they need, and assist their existing plans to keep students and staff as safe as possible,” said Donelan.

Donelan said SAGE, the government’s scientific advisory group, has made clear that teaching in person is important and fully online provision would have an impact on students’ mental health.

Where practical work occurs in close contact like medicine, dentistry and performing arts, universities should follow advice for the relevant professional environment, the minister added.

“All social activities will need to comply with the latest measures, though students will still be able to socialize with the same ‘household’ they form in their student accommodation,” said the DoE.

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