May 19, 2024


International Student Club UK

Universities sceptical about idea of making students prove vaccine status | Students

Universities in England are understood to believe that forcing students to prove their vaccination status to attend lectures or live in halls of residence would be effectively unworkable, after ministers refused to rule out the idea.

With unions also questioning the notion of what one official said would involve “academics having to work as door staff” to check students’ vaccine certificates, the plan appears unlikely to go ahead. There is speculation it was floated in part to boost vaccination rates among young people.

The National Union of Students also condemned the idea, saying the government appeared to be “lining students up as scapegoats for its own failings”.

Asked about the proposals, first briefed to the Times, the education minister Vicky Ford said: “Obviously, I can’t comment on things that haven’t been announced, but one does need to look at every practicality to make sure that we can get students back safely, and make sure we can continue to prioritise education.”

Pushed to confirm it was being considered, she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We’ve always considered everything that we can do to make sure that all people are safe in education. And the key thing, as we know, to keep transmission down, is to make sure that people get their vaccination.”

Boris Johnson’s spokesperson similarly refused to rule the idea out, saying ministers “obviously reserve the right to protect the public and reduce transmission, which is why as I say we’re still looking at the scope of certification”.

It is another front in the government’s push for so-called domestic vaccine passports, an idea ministers had previously ruled out. A week ago, Johnson said these would be necessary for people attending nightclubs or similarly crowded venues from late September.

Such ideas, which do not allow the alternative method of showing a recent negative Covid test or proof of antibodies for the virus, have alarmed many Conservative MPs on civil liberties grounds, with the Liberal Democrats opposed and Labour wary.

But while Universities UK, which represents the sector, is publicly supportive of moves to increase vaccination rates among students, there are understood to be significant misgivings about how the mooted plan could work in practice.

There is a perceived risk of students challenging such a two-tier system in the courts, given they would have applied to attend a university or live in halls without such stipulations. Advice has suggested they would have a good case.

“It seems fairly late in the process to be bringing this in, and universities don’t want to spend all autumn fighting court cases,” one official said.

Another issue is the cost of enforcing such a policy, and how it would be done, for example whether it would be up to lecturers to check the vaccine status of students before they were allowed in.

The University and College Union (UCU), which represents academic and support staff, said mandatory vaccinations would be “hugely discriminatory” both for those unable to be vaccinated, and international students.

The UCU general secretary, Jo Grady, said: “Instead of chasing headlines as ministers go off on holiday, it would be much more useful if the prime minister worked with universities and NHS providers to enable and sensitively encourage student vaccination without resorting to compulsion.”

A Universities UK spokesperson said: “Universities are already encouraging students to get vaccinated and not delay, and will continue working with government and local public health teams to promote uptake over the summer through targeted communications, and by setting up temporary ‘pop-up’ clinics at convenient locations.”

Asked about the general idea of vaccine passports on Monday, the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, said he would “look carefully at what the government puts forward”, but appeared to offer support only for certification for large events – and only if testing was also used.

“The idea we can go back to mass sporting events without any kind of checks is not one I subscribe to,” the Labour leader told LBC, adding: “I don’t want to see vaccine passports used on an everyday basis.”