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Universities must not become the care homes of a Covid second wave

29 August 2020

Universities must scrap plans to reopen campuses next month in order to prevent a major public health crisis, said UCU today.

The union fears that the migration of over a million students across the UK risks doing untold damage to people's health and exacerbating the worst health crisis of our lifetimes.

UCU said that the prospect of mass student migration was already challenging enough, but the A-levels fiasco and the removal of the cap on the number of students universities can recruit risked overwhelming some institutions and turning universities into the care homes of a second wave.

UCU said that demanding over a million young people move around the UK to attend university made no sense. The union highlighted there is no functioning track and trace system in place, nor any UK-wide plans to regularly test students or staff. UCU said the push to get students back on campus was being driven by a dangerous desire to get back to business as usual, before it was safe to do so.

UCU said that, rather than allowing universities to reopen precipitously, the government had to step in and underwrite any lost funding for the higher education sector. The union said universities that rely on tuition and accommodation fees feared lost income and the government had to make it clear now that they will not suffer financially for doing the right thing in terms of public health.

The union accepted that there would be challenges switching from blended learning to online, but that the move outweighed the health risks for students and the wider population. UCU added that it was highly likely that reopening campuses would result in local lockdowns and courses being moved online. The union said it was best to make that call now instead of a U-turn that would be too late even by this government's standards.

In the US more universities are moving back to online only after seeing increases in Covid cases. There are also examples across the Atlantic of students being blamed for increases in cases and lockdowns - something UCU said it wanted to avoid being repeated in the UK. The union said that if campuses reopen and cases rise then blaming students, instead of doing everything to mitigate against it happening, would be a denial of responsibility by government and universities.

The union said it backed recommendations in last week's report from the Independent Sage committee that called for online learning to become universities' default position. The union said that although recorded cases were on the rise, the government has not provided systems for testing and tracing that could cope with campuses reopening and universities have failed to step into the breach.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: 'Moving a million plus students around the country is a recipe for disaster and risks leaving ill-prepared universities as the care homes of a second wave. The recent fiasco over exam results and their fallout has left universities under even greater pressure. It is time for the government to finally take some decisive and responsible action in this crisis and tell universities to abandon plans for face-to-face teaching.

'Refusing to act now will only store up problems further down the line as courses are forced to move online and students forced into lockdown. It is no good blaming students later on for a problem that could have been avoided by government action. We need to move all teaching online for the first term of the new academic year, as recommended by Independent Sage, and the government needs to underwrite any lost funding for the sector.

'The limited, piecemeal funding measures announced by the government so far are nothing compared with the security and the stimulus that would be provided by a comprehensive funding guarantee. Students will also need financial support to ensure that they can participate fully in online learning .'

The union has issued new guidance that also calls for greater testing on campus and better and more cleaning. UCU said it wanted colleges and universities to work with the union on risk assessments to ensure staff and students could be confident their health and welfare was institutions' number one concern. Earlier this week, the union called for face coverings to be worn in colleges and universities.

At 4pm on Tuesday Jo Grady will be joined by guests including Independent Sage members Professor Ann Phoenix and Professor Elizabeth Stokoe, and president of the National Union of Students Larissa Kennedy to consider how campuses could reopen safely. The event will be live on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. Full details are available here.

Last updated: 8 February 2022