V-cs fear more delays to full reopening of English campuses

Universities UK and Russell Group push for all students to return from 12 April amid concern that it could be pushed back to mid-May

March 26, 2021
London, United Kingdom - November 13 2020 A student wearing a protective face mask walks past the LSE Old Building, London School of Economics and Political Science.
Source: iStock

Sector leaders have called for all students to be allowed to return to English universities after Easter, raising concerns that the next stage of reopening campuses could be pushed back to mid-May or beyond.

Universities UK (UUK) and the Russell Group said their pleas to the Westminster government were driven by concern for students’ welfare, but the intervention puts them on a collision course with unions, which have said courses should be taught online until the end of the academic year wherever possible to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

UUK estimated that as many as half of the 2.1 million higher education students were still being taught fully online, and that institutions had been “preparing extensively” for a final phase of returns from 12 April, when other areas of the economy such as non-essential shops are due to reopen.

But UUK said “concerns were growing” that the next stage of campus reopening “will be delayed until 17 May at the earliest” despite what it described as “exceptional campus safety records” during the return of students on priority and practical courses earlier this year, “and strong evidence of the benefits that a 12 April return would bring to the mental health, well-being and development of those students who have had no in-person teaching or access to facilities this year”.

Mid-May is usually the start of exam season, so students returning at that point would be unlikely to receive significant amounts of in-person teaching.

Survey data published by the Office for National Statistics earlier this month found that two-thirds of UK students said that they felt that their mental health had worsened since the start of the autumn term. Respondents were significantly more likely than average to report feeling lonely or dissatisfied with their life.

Julia Buckingham, UUK’s president, said students had been “extremely tolerant in the face of huge disruption and a radically different experience this year, and have willingly made sacrifices in the interests of public safety. But the government must not take their resilience for granted.”

“The government has said that decisions will be based on data, not dates. Universities have proven that the safety measures put in place…have enabled effective management of the virus on campuses, with minimal infection rates in face-to-face teaching settings and limited onward transmission to local communities,” said Professor Buckingham, vice-chancellor of Brunel University London.

“When making this decision, we urge the government to take account of the rigorous Covid safety measures universities have implemented as well as the clear benefits for students of a 12 April return.”

Ministers have said they will set out their strategy for the return of more students by the end of the Easter holidays and that universities will be given at least one week’s notice of the plans.

THE understands that the Department for Education is keen to get most students back to in-person teaching as soon after Easter as possible but is facing resistance from others in government who worry that mass movement of students could increase Covid transmission.

The Russell Group of highly selective universities said there had not been major coronavirus outbreaks on campuses during 2021, even though most students were now living in their term-time accommodation. Of 91,934 lateral flow tests for Covid-19 conducted in the first week of March, just 102 (0.1 per cent) were positive.

Tim Bradshaw, the Russell Group’s chief executive, said many students “feel they have been forgotten by government and fear they will miss out on opportunities that their universities are currently only allowed offer to students on practice-based courses”.

“Given the lack of evidence that it would represent a risk in terms of an increased spread of Covid, we would urge the government to allow all remaining students to have the opportunity to resume in-person teaching from 12 April,” Dr Bradshaw said.

But Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union, said the group’s plea “smacks of self-interest and risks the safety of staff, students and the wider public”.

“Universities should not now be asking hundreds of thousands of students to return for in-person teaching after Easter when most courses will only have revision classes and exams left,” Dr Grady said. “University staff are burned out from the chaotic and unsustainable demands that the sector has placed on them this year, and we will not let universities sacrifice their well-being on the altar of short-term financial incentives.

“UCU is calling for courses to be taught online until the end of the academic year wherever possible. It will be much safer to remain online until the start of the next academic year, when many more people will have been vaccinated.”

The union would support staff to protect themselves if they felt their health was being put at risk, “including through balloting for industrial action where necessary”, Dr Grady said.

A DfE spokesman said the government was “committed to getting all students back into university as soon as the public health situation allows”.

“We will be reviewing options for the timing of the return of all remaining students by the end of the Easter holidays,” the spokesman said. “Decisions will take into account the need to protect progress across the wider road map out of the pandemic, including the spread of the virus in communities and pressures on the NHS.”

chris.havergal@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

The UCU leadership is again over-reaching itself in presuming to dictate when it is safe for campuses should re-open to students over Covid. As a UCU member for thirty years I find this dismissal of student interests in favour of staff welfare embarrassing, unprofessional, and shameful . Coming from a leadership that thinks of itself as left wing, this failure of solidarity with students is impossible to explain, let alone justify. Look at the schools! Jo Grady is starting to sound like Freda Kite.

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