“It will be a relief to get back home,” says Louis Chambers, a student at Hull, who will be among more than a million students leaving university in the “travel window” which has now opened.

Because of Covid restrictions he has only been able to see his family in Norfolk once this term.

His university is operating a system of time slots for leaving, to avoid a rush on the roads or public transport.

The geology student had also arranged a Covid test before the Christmas break.

Louis has a time slot booked to leave for Norfolk this week

Louis, a first year student at the University of Hull, will be collected by his parents, with the university running one-hour slots so there are “not so many leaving at once”.

But he thinks the Covid testing and travel window have been uncomplicated so far – and he has enjoyed his first term.

The official travel window is between 3 and 9 December, but many students will have already left. Out of the six in Louis’s flat, he said, three had already gone home.

University of Hull student services director Anji Gardiner has been organising the staggered departures.

A woman waits at a train platform
The window for students to travel home began on Thursday

As well as slots for those being collected by car – which run from 07:00 to 20:00 GMT – there are coaches being laid on and a booking system for the limited capacity on trains, with the numbers travelling spread out across the week.

“We want to keep it safe – we didn’t want a log-jam of people trying to get home,” Dr Gardiner said.

Dropout rates lower

But there are no signs of the pressures of the pandemic making more students drop out, with figures from the Student Loans Company showing the number of students withdrawing from courses had gone down.

About 5,500 students withdrew from courses across the UK this autumn, compared with 6,100 last autumn.

Covid testing
Students have been asked to take two tests three days apart ahead of travelling

The lower dropout rate reflects the lack of any better options this year, suggested Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute think-tank.

“What else are you going to do? You can’t travel and it’s hard to get a job,” he said.

Nine-week gap

But many students heading home this week will not be returning to their universities for another nine weeks – as the government in England announced a staggered start to next term, with some students not back until 7 February.

The plan, to avoid a surge of students and the risk of spreading coronavirus, will see students returning over five weeks in the new year – with most courses starting online before a return to in-person teaching.

The first students returning from 4 to 8 January will be for hands-on, practical courses which are difficult to teach solely online – which will include medicine, nursing and dentistry, sciences which need to use laboratories, and music, dance and drama.

Other subjects, such as English or history, would be taught online at the start of term, with students back between 25 January and 7 February.

Students will be offered two lateral flow Covid tests when they arrive back – similar to the process for their departure.

Momoh will be getting Covid tests and then heading home to Manchester

Momoh Suleman, studying social work at the University of Bradford, is sympathetic to the need for the delayed start – although wants something to be arranged about paying rent when he won’t be there.

“It’s the best idea to keep our families safe,” he said, and on balance he said it was right to have a staggered return if it reduced the risk of infection.

He is having two Covid tests this week before getting the train home to Manchester – and can’t wait to see his family, having decided it was safer not to see them during the term.

“I didn’t want to risk them,” said Momoh.

Mass testing before Christmas

The mass Covid testing of students began in universities on Monday – with temporary testing centres set up in sports halls and in rooms on campus.

St Andrews

Before leaving for Christmas, students have been encouraged to have two tests three days apart – and to travel within 24 hours of receiving a second negative test result.

In England, about 1.2 million students will be travelling from a university to a home address in another part of the country, including:

  • 235,000 leaving the South East
  • 217,000 leaving London
  • 126,000 leaving the East Midlands
  • 122,000 leaving the West Midlands
  • 119,000 leaving the North West
  • 110,000 leaving the South West
  • 88,000 leaving the East
  • 64,000 leaving the North East