Richard Lochhead: 'Above my pay grade' to say when students can return

Universities minister Richard Lochhead has told MSPs it is not his decision as to when students can return to campuses.

Mr Lochhead, the minister for further and higher education in Scotland, said the responsibility for making that decision was above his “pay grade”.

Quizzed by MSPs on Holyrood’s education committee about the impact of Covid restrictions on universities and colleges, he was asked by Scottish Conservative education spokesman Jamie Greene about return dates for face-to-face learning and the testing regime that would be in place.

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Mr Lochhead said: “That's a huge question and probably above my pay grade as to when college and university students can return to campus.

Dentistry students still don't know when they will complete their courses.

"We're in a challenging situation with the virus. We may have the ability from mid-Feb to have some back for face-to-face [learning] if it's absolutely critical. The general message though is the end of February, beginning of March.

“And on testing, the regime is up and running for students returning, but it’s very quiet, so there's a skeleton staff employed by universities at this stage. We’ve extended it to those returning and the several thousand students who stayed on campus.”

Asked by Scottish Labour’s Daniel Johnson about whether there would be extensions for practical courses such as dentistry and medicine, Mr Lochhead also said this was being dealt with by “health colleagues” rather than him.

“Clearly the lack of face-to-face teaching has had an impact on some courses more than others,” he said.

“I know universities are looking at contingency plans to graduate, but it's challenging. My health colleagues in the Scottish Government are closest to this and I'll be happy to send information to the committee.”

Mr Lochhead was also unable to give a specific number for students who had already returned.

“It's a difficult question to answer precisely,” he said.

"We laid out guidance for return this term and that anticipated no more than 5 per cent of students being on campuses across Scotland and we’ve no reason to believe that's been breached, but we're keeping a close eye on that. We know from feedback there's very few numbers of students on campus.”

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