AS MANY as 40 different universities around the UK have now reported corona cases as the virus sweeps through the education system.
After the University College Union’s (UCU) worst fears began to materialise, it called for an end to face-to-face teaching and for all classes to be moved on-line.
Thousands of students are self-isolating as the new term begins.
The University of Aberystwyth is the latest to suspend face-to-face teaching to reduce the spread of Covid.
Tory PM Johnson said yesterday that students would be able to go home for the Christmas break. This, however, is cold comfort to those who are currently being held on campus against their will, like those at Manchester Met where security guards have been deployed to ensure they do not leave campus.
In Scotland, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said ensuring students could go home at Christmas would be a priority, but students at Glasgow University are being forcibly held on campus. It is ‘unlawful’ for them to leave.
As to whether students in England should receive a fees refund (for example, if all their teaching is online) the PM said universities ‘are autonomous and would make their own decisions about fees.’
Some students have questioned why they were told to leave home and pay for accommodation when most teaching is being done remotely.
Labour has called on the government to consider pausing the return to universities, rather than risk further Covid outbreaks and self-isolation for students.
The UCU demanded yesterday: ‘Move universities online now.’
The union accused universities of hiding behind government guidance and called for Johnson to adopt a clear policy that the majority of teaching should be online.
UCU also called for students to be allowed to return home if they wish – without fear of financial penalty for leaving student accommodation.
On Friday evening, Manchester Metropolitan University locked down around 1,700 students in halls of residence. Despite this, the university said it was only moving learning online for foundation year students and first years.
Over the weekend Professor Mark Woodhouse, from the government’s pandemic modelling group, said that the current crisis was not only ‘entirely predictable,’ but that modelling had shown halls of residences and in-person teaching were areas of risk.
UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: ‘Given the rapidly changing situation and the increasing Covid outbreaks, now is the time for swift action and to move the majority of universities’ work online. We are not prepared to take chances with the health and safety of students, staff or local communities.
‘Manchester Metropolitan University shifting teaching online only for foundation and first year students, for example, exposes the absurdity of trying to continue with blended learning.
‘There is no point encouraging students to come to university to self-isolate for a fortnight, and doing so now looks even more like a cynical effort to extract accommodation fees and then worry about what to do.
‘We cannot have students forced to quarantine in halls of residence with no familiar support network, or staff forced to carry out work on site that could be conducted more safely from home.
‘Students must be allowed to safely return home if they wish to and without fear of financial penalty for leaving their student accommodation.’