The Scottish Government has given the green light to a plan for universities to use on campus accommodation for international students if they can demonstrate safety measures in place would match those being used at quarantine hotels.
However, before it is allowed, a pilot scheme involving two unnamed universities must take place to make sure it is feasible.
At the moment anyone arriving in the UK from red list countries has to quarantine at government-approved hotels at a cost of £1,750 – a hugely expensive sum for many students.
More than 100,000 international students are due to come to the UK in September from red list countries, according to Universities UK International (UUKI). As well as concerns over cost, it is unclear if there is enough hotel space to accommodate them all.
In April, it was revealed some institutions were in talks with the Scottish Government about participating in a “hotel quarantine” pilot in July to help deal with the influx of foreign students due to start courses in September.
The Scottish Government would not confirm if they still plan to run the pilot in July or if it would be pushed back, but in a statement, a spokesperson said: “The Scottish Government has been exploring with universities how student accommodation could be used in place of hotels for managed isolation.
“Guidance is currently being drafted for a ‘pilot’ scheme to assess how this would work in practice, with two universities expressing an interest in taking part.
“Ministers agreed to permit student accommodation to be used for managed isolation for international students and students returning to Scotland following an educational exchange if universities can provide the necessary assurances that the accommodation meets equivalent public health protection assurances as hotels.”
If the scheme is still to happen next month, international students due to arrive for pre-sessional education in July could be in the frame to be used.
Universities Scotland, which represents Scotland’s 19 higher education institutions, said international students would begin arriving from mid-August to September and many were awaiting clarity on quarantine requirements.
A spokesperson said: “The situation with international travel is changing constantly, as we have seen again over the course of this week. Our top concern right now is to ensure that the UK and Scottish governments are planning with some urgency to ensure there is sufficient capacity for arrivals from red list countries for the purposes of higher education in August and September.
“The start of the academic year, just like the summer tourist season, has been visible on the horizon for some time. We must be ready to safely manage these arrivals in everyone’s interests.
"Universities are ready to support this, but they need clarity from both governments on this issue.”
Asked about the quarantine pilot, they added: “A number of universities in Scotland expressed interest in being part of a pilot to run managed isolation for international student arrivals from ‘red list’ countries as a means to offer Covid-safe entry whilst also offering more robust wellbeing and support measures, for what is likely to be a younger demographic than the majority of people using the hotel isolation.
“Institutions are still in discussion with the Scottish Government on the detail of how this might be achieved in a way that gives an equivalent management of the risk of transmission to the use of hotels.”
The government refused to confirm which universities will take part, but Aberdeen, Stirling, St Andrews and Glasgow universities are known to have expressed interest.
Edinburgh University was contacted for comment.
Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh said it had withdrawn from the scheme because the institution did not have the right facilities.
A spokesperson said: “Heriot-Watt University had expressed an early interest in the Scottish Government-led pilot.
"However, after careful assessment, it became clear the university would be unable to meet the requirements necessary to fit halls of residence style accommodation into hotel-style guidelines and has now withdrawn from the scheme.”
A spokesperson for St Andrews University said: “The University of St Andrews is working with the Scottish Government and clinicians to find a sensible approach to providing managed isolation at the university in an environment where students can be supported by the full range of university services.
“The university has demonstrated a solid track record of managing quarantine since the pandemic started in March 2020 and remains hopeful that this will be supported by the Scottish Government to allow managed isolation to be provided within our university residences.”
A spokesperson for Aberdeen University said: “We continue, with the rest of the sector, to engage closely with the Scottish Government to ensure that students and staff coming to Aberdeen from out of the UK are supported through any self-isolation requirements that will be in place.”
Stirling and Glasgow universities didn’t respond to request for comment.
Vivienne Stern, director of UUKI, described the Scottish pilot plan as “good news”, but said nothing similar was on the cards for English universities at the moment.
She said: “Some individual universities may be able to meet hotel quarantine standards, so now the discussions are between the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) and the sector about whether that would be possible to take it forward, whether that will form a pilot I don’t know.
“I think there are going to be questions about how the DHSC in the end feels about travel distance from port of entry to point of quarantine. So it’s not resolved, there’s no discussion of a pilot, it’s simply that we’re in that information sharing phase.”