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Latest government university guidance and young people infection rates prove case for online learning, says UCU

10 September 2020 | last updated: 17 September 2020

UCU will ask Deputy Chief Medical Officer Jenny Harries on Thursday 10 September if she thinks that colleges and universities should move their learning online in an effort to combat the spread of Covid-19.

The union said data shared at the prime minister's briefing showed that the infection rate among 17-21 year olds is at 50 in 100,000 and increasing sharply. These are the main age groups found in colleges and universities. Countries that have infections greater than 20 in 100,000 are removed from the safe travel list and require those who return to quarantine.

The union was also critical of delayed government guidance for universities in England that was released overnight. UCU said shifting a majority of learning online would avoid universities trying to follow confusing, expensive and at times silly suggestions in the guidance.

The guidance talks about the need for better ventilation and suggests teaching outside or opening doors and windows. UCU said this was not a practical suggestion for England during the winter months. In the section about the need for protective measures to comply with health and safety risk assessments, the guidance offers no extra funds and says additional costs would need to be met from existing budgets.

The guidance also confirmed a controversial plan revealed by the prime minister yesterday to ban students from going back to family in the event of a Covid outbreak.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: 'Any country with an infection rate anywhere near that of our young people would be removed from the safe travel list. We cannot see why the government is insisting young people move around the country and engage in unnecessary face-to-face interactions. We hope the panel today will share our concerns and back moving more learning online until these worrying rates come down.

'We are unimpressed with the latest government guidance for English universities which contains confusing, expensive and at time silly suggestions. Moving learning online would remove the need for universities to consider teaching outside or opening doors and windows in the winter months, as the guidance suggests.'

* The briefing will take place at 1pm and feature a panel of medical experts: Jenny Harries, Deputy Chief Medical Officer; Wendy Nicholson, Deputy Chief Nurse for Children, Young People and Families; and Russell Viner, President of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health. UCU has submitted this question:

'The Department for Education's latest guidance says that for 16-19 year olds in further education the model of delivery must involve a majority of onsite delivery. SAGE's recent report, by contrast, says that reducing in-person interaction is an effective way to reduce transmission and that a hierarchy of control must be used to manage risks. It is clear that infection rates in college and university student cohorts are much higher than those in schools. Do you think that the Department for Education's guidance should be updated to encourage more online/remote learning to manage the risk in light of the most recent infection figures?'

Last month, UCU said that universities' default position should be online learning to avoid risking a major health crisis.

Last week, the government's scientific advisers SAGE raised concerns about the likelihood of increased cases on campus.

On Monday, health secretary Matt Hancock said he was concerned about the reopening of universities, but suggested that students would be to blame for any second wave.

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