Public fear students heading to universities will result in second wave and they hold government responsible

20 September 2020

The Observer reported that a majority of people (57%) believe students moving to university across England will result in a lockdown or restrictions in their area, according to a poll for UCU by Survation*.

Other key findings include:

  • 48% of people would blame government for any local lockdown
  • Only 35% of people surveyed think universities should continue with face-to-face teaching
  • 57% do not have confidence that local track and trace systems can control a Covid outbreak
  • UCU launches monitoring system for outbreaks on campus.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: 'This proves UCU was right last month to call for online learning to be universities' default position. Vice-chancellors are in denial and creating hygiene theatre to pretend institutions are safe. Government and universities have to stop selling the lie to students that they can have a full university experience in the current crisis.

'The public are rightly concerned about the impact of tens of thousands students moving across the country to their universities. People do not want to see local outbreaks on their doorstep. For all the government's attempts to blame anyone but themselves for the crisis, large swathes of the public are not being fooled. 

'With the Test and Trace system in England at breaking point it is no wonder that the public do not have confidence in the system or this government. Without a nationally coordinated comprehensive testing system in place, universities and colleges simply will not be able to cope with outbreaks or potential outbreaks. 

'The evidence is clear that online learning should be the default position for universities this term, yet still ministers and vice chancellors are insisting students should travel and universities should engage in face-to-face teaching - even in areas with local lockdowns.

'Universities need to step up to the plate and put their students, staff and local communities first. It cannot be business as normal at the moment and they need to stop pretending that is a credible option.

'With the DFE refusing to release data on outbreaks we have put the Government and employers on notice that we will be monitoring outbreaks in Universities and colleges and will name and shame institutions that are not up to scratch. Our main objective is to help avert a preventable public health crisis. But if our members are concerned with how their college or university is behaving we will back them if they vote to move into dispute, which could result in ballots for industrial action.'

The findings are from a Survation poll of 1,012 people in English university towns and cities* that also revealed that around half of those polled (48%) would blame the government. Just under a quarter (23%) would blame students, and 7% would blame universities. 

A third (35%) said they wanted face-to-face teaching to continue, (50%) said they thought universities should cancel face-to-face teaching and move the majority of teaching online, 15% said they did not know.

The poll also found that 57% of people did not have confidence that local track and trace systems were sufficient to help control a Covid-19 outbreak. Ministers were warned this week that a lack of testing could force schools in England to grind to a halt because students and staff would have to stay at home following a suspected case. 

Last month UCU called for online learning to be universities' default position in the battle to limit Covid surges on campus this term. The government's own scientific advisers SAGE have raised concerns about the likelihood of increased cases at universities as more than a million students move across the country to start university. 

study released earlier this week said cutting face-to-face teaching was the most effective way to reduce coronavirus transmission on campuses. It also warned that about a fifth of students could catch the virus by the end of the first term if additional protections were not put in place.

On Wednesday, UCU launched a monitoring system for its members to contact the union directly with concerns they had about their institutions' plans to deal with the Covid threat. The union said it would name and shame universities and colleges that were not up to scratch and that any institution not preparing to deal with a local outbreak was in denial about the severity of the challenges they would most likely face.

Data released by Downing Street last week showed 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.


* How likely, if at all, do you think it is that the return of students to your area will lead to a local lockdown / restriction?
19% Very likely
38% Quite likely
21% Not that likely
6%   Not at all likely
17% Don't know

If the return of students leads to an increase in the spread of COVID-19, which of the following would you blame for this outcome?
48% Government
23% Students
7%   Universities
21% Don't know

Thinking about your local area, to what extent, if at all, are you confident that local track and trace systems are currently sufficient to help control a COVID-19 outbreak if one were to arise from the return of students?
24% Not at all likely
33% Not that likely 
22% Quite likely
9%   Very likely
11% DK 

Based on your understanding of the risks that arise from students attending university in person, which of the following statements best reflects your view?
50% Universities should cancel face-to-face teaching this term, and restrict students to online learning as far as possible
35% Universities should not cancel face-to-face teaching this term or restrict students to online learning as far as possible
15% Don't know

* Between 11 and 14 September, Survation polled 1,012 residents aged 18+ living in the following 25 towns and cities in England:
Brighton and Hove
Kingston upon Hull
Newcastle upon Tyne

Last updated: 22 September 2020