Plans to reopen universities have been thrown into serious doubt as the UK’s largest academic union warns today that it is “too dangerous” for face-to-face teaching to resume, and calls on the government and vice-chancellors to prevent students returning to campuses this autumn.
Around one million students are expected to move around the UK as they head back to universities over the next month, which union leaders and public health experts fear could lead to a dramatic increase in outbreaks of Covid-19.
The University and College Union (UCU), which represents over 120,000 academics, lecturers and university workers accused the government of “encouraging a public health crisis”, warning that British universities are just “weeks away” from “sleepwalking into a disaster”.
“A million young people are being encouraged to travel all around the UK, move into halls of residence and congregate in large numbers. This could lead to universities being the care homes of any second wave of Covid,” general secretary Jo Grady said in an interview with the Observer.
The comments will increase uncertainty among students, parents and university staff hoping to return to something close to normal university life next month. Undergraduates have already suffered disruption to their studies, with two strikes by university workers in the last academic year meaning that most students missed several weeks of face-to-face teaching, even before lockdown started.
Arguments over the safety of universities will also put pressure on government ministers as they focus this weekend on ensuring a safe return to school for millions of pupils.
University leaders, while determined to ensure that students and staff are safe, are also aware of the financial repercussions if students follow the example of young people in the United States who have demanded fee rebates because of the lack of personalised teaching. Many UK universities are already struggling financially as they implement new guidance to make premises safe.
In the United States, thousands of coronavirus cases have been linked to colleges, while in the UK, university cities such as Birmingham and Manchester have already emerged as hotspots for the virus.
Grady said that the government had made no attempt to identify students carrying the virus. “There are no plans for universal testing on campus, or even for everybody who moves out of a lockdown zone to be tested before they’re allowed to go to university,” she said. She added that resuming face-to-face teaching without universal testing would endanger a generation of young people, as well as university workers and people living in university towns.
“We now have universities with even more students attending than they were originally planning because of the A-level fiasco. And we know infection rates are on the increase among younger age cohorts. So the very people who are increasingly getting infected by this virus are being encouraged in mass numbers to move all around the country and congregate and live together. It doesn’t make sense.”
Grady said that the UCU wants students to stay away from university campuses until Christmas unless a testing programme is put in place, and for the government to review this on a termly basis.
Gabriel Scally, visiting professor of public health at Bristol University and a member of the Independent Sage committee, said there would “inevitably” be outbreaks and clusters of coronavirus cases at some universities if students returned. “I think it’s beyond question that there will be issues,” he said. “Young people, particularly in that [university] age group, tend to think they’re invulnerable. There will be a lot of people very excited, living away from home with a whole new range of people. It is a really a very serious potential problem for the spread of the virus and an upsurge this autumn – perhaps even more so than with schools.”
Government guidance to universities, issued on 17 July, states that they should identify an “appropriate mix of online and face-to-face content for each subject”. Universities UK, which represents vice-chancellors, said universities were planning to provide a mixture of face-to-face and online teaching. Typically, lectures will be given online, instead of in lecture halls, while seminars and tutorials will be offered to small groups, practicing social distancing.
Some university leaders in London are particularly worried about the students heading back to the capital, as many will be coming from abroad, or long distances within the UK, and often their accommodation will be well away from the actual university. This means they will have to use public transport on a regular basis.
On 20 August, the Independent Sage group recommended that all university courses should be offered remotely and online, unless they involved practical training or lab work. If students and staff do have to attend campus in these restricted circumstances, the committee said they should be tested for the virus on or before arrival, and regularly afterwards.
The National Union of Students said it wanted universities to follow the Independent Sage advice and focus on delivering face-to-face teaching only for lab-based and practical courses. “The government needs to work with universities to urgently take action and ensure that measures are put in place to prioritise student and staff safety,” said Larissa Kennedy, NUS national president. “In-person teaching should only take place if it can be delivered safely for all staff and students, and social distancing guidelines and other safety measures can be maintained.”
Emma Hardy, Labour shadow minister for universities, said that the university sector was being left to deal with the problem of Covid on its own and accused the government of showing a lack of leadership: “You only need to look abroad at what’s been happening in America, where the universities have opened, to see how it’s impacted the number of cases in a particular area. This is an issue the government needs to take seriously.”
The Department for Education said it was planning to update its guidance to universities before the start of term to reflect the latest public health advice, including advice on face coverings, local lockdowns and test and trace. “The safety of students and staff must be a priority, and we expect universities to make judgments based on the latest public health guidance,” a spokesperson said. “We have set up a government task force with the sector to work closely with universities to support them with any challenges they may be facing this coming academic year.”