University teaching should stay remote, says Independent Sage

Group of prominent UK scientists warns that the risk of infection is too high for in-person teaching

August 21, 2020
Online learning
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Universities should not provide in-person teaching this autumn as the risk of spread of infection is too high, the Independent Sage group of scientists has said.

In a report published on 21 August, the group said that all university courses should be offered remotely and online − unless they involve practical training or lab work − because in-person modes of delivery carry the highest risk of transmission given that they feature prolonged interactions in enclosed indoor spaces.

According to the group, made up of prominent UK scientists and chaired by former chief scientific adviser to the government David Anthony King, Universities UK’s position that students should be offered “significant in-person teaching” not only increases the risk of transmission but is the most disruptive for staff and students, as the UK continues to battle off-on lockdown measures, Covid-19 infection, isolation and sickness.

“Universities should focus on providing excellent quality remote learning rather than on opening up campuses that are likely to close again,” they wrote. They point to the fact that two US universities, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and University of Notre Dame, have already had to shut down on-campus teaching due to outbreaks of the coronavirus.

A recent survey by Times Higher Education found that most UK universities plan to conduct their large lectures online next term but hope to do as much face-to-face teaching as they can in smaller groups such as seminars and tutorials.

According to the Independent Sage report, market forces – ie, the need to maintain student fees – have resulted in a focus on maintaining the quality of student experience and potentially less focus on the health and safety of staff required to deliver the student experience.

The group urged universities to recognise that online learning can offer innovative and effective academic experiences. They added that the government will need to support the move through providing funding to universities, so they can provide equipment and faster broadband accessibility for all students.

If students do not have workspaces, then the government should set smaller local hubs, such as local libraries, that are funded and made safe for students to study in, they recommended.

Where teaching students in person is unavoidable, such as for lab-based or practice-based programmes, universities must adopt stringent measures to reduce the spread of Covid-19, the report said. This includes a strong programme for testing both staff and students and asking students to restrict face-to-face activities and social interactions for the first two weeks of term.

There must also be a clear strategy and implementation regarding “bubbles”, households and gatherings.

Classrooms should also require everyone to wear masks and enforce social distancing of two metres as the norm, alongside regular cleaning, the report said.

Of the 69 institutions that responded to the THE survey, 53 said they would require staff and students to wear face coverings in communal areas on campus unless they had a medical reason not to.

Making sure the outbreak is minimised on campus is important not just for students and university staff but because of their potential impact on the local area, the scientists warn. “Core to university operations is the mass movement and mass migration of a million or more people around the world, at multiple points of the year,” they said.

The report adds there is a risk that the spread of Covid-19 by students could go undetected, as most are under 25 and therefore more likely to be asymptomatic carriers, or that it could be masked by so-called “freshers’ flu”.

Speaking at an event, in partnership with THE and the University and College Union, to launch the report, Stephen Reicher, a member of Independent Sage and professor of psychology at the University of St. Andrews, said the report was not calling for universities to close but to stop interactions that might cause extra risk. “We can't underestimate how dangerous a disease it is”, even to young people who appear less affected by the virus, he said. He added that it was “really important that universities maintain positive relations with the local communities and that students, staff and the whole university act responsibly to keep people safe”.

A Universities UK spokesperson said that “ensuring the health, safety and well-being of students, staff and local communities in the new academic year is the number one priority for universities”.

“Across the sector, universities are conducting risk assessments and following − at minimum − official government guidance and the latest public health advice including considering where in-person activities can be delivered in a safe and responsible way,” they said.

“While the report acknowledges the challenges posed by the ongoing pandemic, it fails to recognise that many of its recommended mitigating actions are already being adopted by universities.”

According to Universities UK, “there is a careful balancing of the risk of any potential future national or local lockdowns and ensuring that young people – who have faced incredible disruption during the pandemic – can continue with their education. Universities have consulted students and staff about the blended approach and are working with the university community to encourage responsible behaviours.”

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Reader's comments (1)

And in "Related Articles", "Germany opts to keep teaching online to avoid spreading Covid", and "Few US universities plan significant on-campus teaching"; the latter notes that the best US universities, like Harvard, have decided all teaching will remain online. UK university managements should follow their lead. Even if our senior managers haven't got the sense to do so off their own bat, one hopes that universities' lawyers and insurers will push them in the right direction.