This information was issued by the COVID-19 Education Task Force on 4 June 2020 and is now archived.


This protocol governs the return of current postgraduate research students (Doctoral and MPhil by thesis and oral examination/viva) to conduct their research on University premises. It provides guidance to Faculties, Departments, Colleges and students; it seeks to ensure that all research students are treated fairly and that decisions about their return to conduct their research in university buildings are informed by individual student circumstances and the need to ensure a secure research environment where risk is mitigated. The protocol governs the return of all research students to conduct their research on University premises, including those who are currently resident in Cambridge and those who are based at Partner Institutes as well as in Faculties and Departments. Students who do not need to be in Cambridge to conduct their research in University Faculty or Department buildings should not return to on-site research, consistent with Public Health England guidance, although this will be kept under review as that guidance develops.  

Any arrangements for postgraduate students returning to conduct research in University buildings in Cambridge must be made in accordance with this protocol. The Head of Department will have a responsibility to ensure that this protocol is adhered to and it should be implemented in conjunction with the Buildings Protocol and the Staff Return to the Workplace Protocol. 

The operation of this protocol will be the third step in decisions relating to the re-opening and use of University buildings. It applies specifically to postgraduate research students. 

Step 1: decision to re-open a University building pursuant to the Buildings Protocol 

The Buildings Taskforce has developed protocols for the phased re-opening and occupancy of University buildings and is working with Schools to identify a prioritised list of buildings that can be re-opened in the initial stage of the recovery process for research and other purposes.   

Access to libraries will be particularly crucial to students in Arts and Humanities subjects who are reliant on materials that are not available online. Reopening library services will be phased. In the early phases, research students will be able to order books for collection at a designated point at the University Library. Access to study spaces and access to Special Collections (e.g. manuscripts) will be in a later phase. Plans for library re-opening are included in the Buildings Protocol. It will not be possible for all libraries to reopen at the same time.  

Step 2: local assessment of restart of activities in the building – establish which activities will restart in the building and when. These local plans will need to be approved by the Head of School.  

For each building which has been approved for re-opening, the School must undertake a risk assessment and will provide details of (among other things) the nature of the research to be carried out, the essential need for access to the building, the number of researchers involved, and the need to open space for administration and general support. For each building, specific protocols on how it will be occupied will be prepared. 

Depending on the size, layout and use of each building, in order to meet social distancing requirements it will be necessary for Faculties and Departments to prioritise the return of some staff and students over others, as well as developing shift working patterns. For example, where multiple research groups are present within a single building it is unlikely that it will be possible for every research group or for every member of a research group to be accommodated in the building.  Research students should necessarily be factored into these considerations. At this stage we are working on the assumption that occupancy of Faculty and Departmental buildings at any one time will be no more than 25% of usual capacity. When buildings are first opened we expect even lower levels of occupancy, with a gradual increase as new safe working practices become established. 

Step 3: decision to allow research students to return to the building. 

Context for considering the return of research students   

An immediate and ongoing task as the University plans for the reopening of research activity is a prioritised list of research buildings and accompanying health and safety assessments to ensure that necessary measures are taken to protect the limited numbers of research staff, students and essential non-academic staff permitted to return.   

The return of postgraduate students to their research in University buildings must be aligned with Public Health England (PHE) guidance at all times. As of 14 May 2020, the Government guidance is that those who can work at home should continue to do so. Students should only therefore be returning to conduct research in University buildings as they reopen across Cambridge if they are unable to work at home. All students who need to relocate back to Cambridge, either from UK or overseas, will need to live in non-shared accommodation for the time being in line with PHE guidance. Students who travel from overseas will need to be in self-isolation for two weeks following arrival, and cannot work during this period.  As soon as PHE guidance permits, home and overseas students will be able to move to households with shared facilities, ideally after a 14-day period. Colleges may be able to provide short-term lets of self-contained units to accommodate this and will do what they can to accommodate students’ return to Cambridge.   

Key principles 

In planning when research students should be permitted to return to University buildings the following key principles apply: 

  1. Working from home remains the default position for those students who can do so.  
  2. Return of a research student depends on the Building Taskforce having determined that a building can be reopened and the specific activities the research student is engaged in can restart.  
  3. The vital importance of maintaining a supportive research environment, in which safety of all is paramount.  
  4. Ensuring that students do not feel pressured to return and are supported if they have reasonable concerns about returning or are unable to return when invited to do so.  
  5. The need to maintain standards and academic rigour in research and assessment. 
  6. Ensuring all students have the best possible experience of what collegiate Cambridge has to offer, albeit in very challenging circumstances, and that Faculties, Departments and Colleges are able to support this experience. 
  7. Ensuring that the collegiate University is prepared to respond at short notice to rapidly changing circumstances, including the possibility of future lockdowns. 
  8. Striving for inclusivity, to ensure that the needs of disabled students, and those with other particular needs or circumstances are taken into account. 


  1. The requirements for opening a building have been satisfied in accordance with the Buildings Protocol. The Buildings Task Force has confirmed that a building has met Test 1 and it is safe to open.  
  2. The Head of Department has confirmed that all interdependent activities can be conducted safely in the building and the Head of School has signed off Test 2.  
  3. A Principal Investigator provides the names of research students who could potentially return to the building to the Head of Department, who is responsible for confirming the list of potential returners.   
  4. Once satisfied of the appropriateness of their return to the building, the Head of Department (or their nominee) contacts the student, specifying working hours and other conditions with which the student must comply and copying in the Senior Tutor of the student’s College. 
  5. If the student is already resident in Cambridge or can commute to Cambridge from home, or has appropriate private accommodation in Cambridge to which they can return, the student can resume their research in a University building. If the student has concerns about returning to their research they should raise this with their College. Once a date for the return of the student to their research has been agreed, the Head of Department, or their nominee, should inform the Student Registry ( 
  6. If the student needs College accommodation, either for a period of isolation or for the longer term, the student must contact the Senior Tutor of their College to confirm that accommodation is available before making any plans to return to Cambridge. Where no such accommodation is available, the Senior Tutor will establish whether arrangements can be made for accommodation in another College. If accommodation is available and a date for moving into accommodation has been confirmed, the College will inform the student, copying in the Head of Department and the Student Registry ( 
  7. In cases where students are unable to return to their research in a University building or have concerns about returning the Senior Tutor of the College can seek guidance from the Education Quality and Policy Office (  

Please also see the flowchart for further guidance.

Factors to consider in allowing students to return 

1. Colleges

Students will be unable to return to accommodation in their College without the College’s prior consent. Students will need to confirm that the Colleges’ Guidance for Returning Postgraduate Research Students has been understood and that specific requirements or concerns have been addressed. Specific examples may include moderate or severe physical vulnerability to more serious COVID-19 illness or the requirement to quarantine if arriving from overseas. Colleges will be assessing their ability to accommodate research students who were previously living in College accommodation and any capacity to accommodate students who were not previously living in College accommodation but no longer have accommodation available to them in Cambridge.

2. Student perspective   

Arrangements for students should be made in accordance with the principles contained within the protocol for Staff Return to the Workplace, as well as the points detailed below. 

2.1 Student support 

Faculties and Departments should take account of the need for a positive and supportive research environment. The availability of supervisors (who may not be able to be on-site) and other supporters such as advisors, technicians and post-docs should be considered. Research students should be included in the people preparation as detailed in the Building and Staff Return to the Workplace protocols. 

Students should be fully involved in discussions about when they can return to conduct their research at Cambridge. Students should not feel pressured by their supervisor to return, and should be supported if they are unable to return or have concerns about returning to Cambridge. Supervisors are encouraged to liaise with their supervisee’s College Tutor if in doubt. Equally, students who are feeling pressured to return or who have any concern about returning should raise this with their College Tutor as soon as possible.   

For students who are either not invited to return or are unable to do so, it is vital that remote support continues which is the responsibility both of the Faculty/Department and the College.  Supervisor meetings, group meetings and other academic events should continue to be held via video conference to include members who have not returned to conduct their research on University premises. 

Students who have not been invited to return by their Department or Faculty, but who find themselves in extremely difficult personal circumstances, should make contact with their College as soon as possible, and if advisable the College will be able to initiate their return to their College, although it will not necessarily be possible for the student to return to their University building to conduct research.  

2.2 Individual student circumstances 

Faculties, Departments and Colleges need to work together to take account of individual student circumstances, and these should be considered in a confidential, sensitive and supportive way.  The student’s College Tutor is an important contact point. Whilst many students have remained in Cambridge, a large number are located elsewhere and travel restrictions together with quarantine requirements may prevent a speedy return to Cambridge. Students residing in Cambridge may be unwilling or unable to return to University premises due to reliance on public transport. Students may have caring responsibilities and be unable to devote themselves to on-site research whilst schools remain closed and/or while they continue to care for others. Most importantly, students or members of their household may have underlying health conditions which make them more vulnerable to COVID-19 and may therefore need to continue to self-isolate. 

The Return to the Workplace protocol for staff should be followed in considering students returning to on-site work and a flexible approach should be taken. For example, students with childcare needs may have constraints in the hours that they can attend University premises.  

Reasonable adjustments for students with disabilities must be taken into account; students must not be disadvantaged or de-prioritised on account of their disability. 

Students should be advised to raise any concerns they have about returning with their College Tutor, who can then liaise with the student’s supervisor and Faculty/Department to see if arrangements can be made to mitigate or address the concerns. Any action in relation to students who are unable or unwilling to return to conduct research in a University building will be made on a case by case basis.   

3. Considerations for prioritisation  

In line with the Buildings Protocol, students should only attend University premises if they have a genuine and demonstrable need to be there and cannot work from home. 

Because social distancing measures are likely to prevent all students from resuming their research in the building, students who need to be present on University premises (e.g. to complete lab work) should be prioritised over those who would prefer to be present on University premises but who are able to work remotely (even if they are not able to work remotely at the same rate).   

Faculties and Departments should bear in mind that some students will be unhappy with a decision made about whether they can resume on-site research (both in cases where students are permitted to return and in cases where they are not).   

Below are factors that Faculties and Departments should consider when deciding whether students can return to conduct research in a University building. These should be applied consistently throughout the Faculty or Department to ensure that the decision-making process is fair and justifiable.   

  • Whether for practical purposes students who are already resident in Cambridge should be allowed to return to University premises earlier than others, although students should not be disadvantaged through having followed the advice of the collegiate University and returned home. 
  • Whether priority should be given to those students conducting experimental work, or to others who need access to facilities in Cambridge that cannot be replicated remotely (e.g. labs, specific computing or other equipment and resources). 
  • Whether priority should be given to research Master’s students for whom this time might be especially crucial and for whom a short amount of additional time back in the laboratory could make a significant impact on the content of their MPhil thesis. Equally there may be doctoral students who only need a small period of time to complete lab work, etc. Other students who need longer time on-site could attend subsequently. 
  • Whether students who are writing up need to have access to a University building. 
  • It may be necessary to change the format of some courses which involve students rotating around different research areas. 
  • Priority should be given to matriculated students over visiting students.  
  • No consideration should be given to how students are funded (e.g. prioritising UKRI or University-funded students over self-funded students, or vice versa), except as part of a consideration of larger research projects and initiatives of which a student may be a part and for which there may be funding deadlines that cannot or have not been revised or if there is a risk that funding could discontinued. 

4. Communication 

Clear communication to all students will be needed to manage expectations and confirm arrangements for students returning to study at Cambridge.  Students who are not invited to return to Cambridge may need reassurance and arrangements put in place to continue to research or study remotely, where possible. 

Students must be advised not to make any arrangements to return to Cambridge until they have received formal confirmation from the Head of their Department that they have permission to return to a University building.   

Clear communication to supervisors is also necessary to manage their expectations and ensure that students are not pressured to return or given inappropriate encouragement to return to Cambridge. Supervisors should have initial discussions with their students but should not create expectations about return and must not pre-empt departmental consideration given to student numbers in assessment of overall building capacity. 

As with returning staff, Faculties and Departments should prepare and provide a version of the return to the workplace pack, including clear information for students on how the building has been prepared and what adjustments have been put in place to ensure the safety of occupants and clarifying the responsibility of occupants. Students should be invited to attend any remote Safe Space Circles.2 

Students who return to research in a University building must be advised of the Protocol for Suspected COVID19 in the Workplace. 

5. Complaints and appeals

If, as is likely, it is not possible for all current students to resume their research in a University building in the coming months, students who the Faculty or Department have not identified as being able to return may complain. Students who feel pressured to return may also complain. Students should follow the normal complaints process, raising matters first with the Department or Faculty at a local level and submitting a formal complaint to the Office of Student Conduct, Complaints and Appeals (OSCCA) if the student remains dissatisfied following the Department or Faculty response. Departments and Faculties can find guidance on how to respond to complaints in the first instance.

Students who have any concerns should be advised by to contact their College Tutors. Alternatively, they may wish to seek advice from the Students' Unions' Advice Service (SUAS).

6 Research project requirements 

Faculties and Departments will need to consider timescales and lead times necessary for the resumption of research projects. For lab-based projects there may be a lead time in re-establishing cultures and samples etc., and limited access to equipment. 

Research projects involving fieldwork may be impeded by ongoing travel restrictions and potentially unsafe locations. Projects involving time-sensitive activity (e.g. plant growth, animal breeding) may also be affected. Students who expected to be elsewhere may also need to be considered/ accommodated.   ​

Issued by Covid-19 Education Task Force,  4 June 2020 

See also the flowchart for return of postgraduate research students to conduct research on University premises.