Dr Jo Grady, Secretary for the University and College Union, told BBC PM’s Evan Davis yesterday that universities need to abandon “blended learning” in the interest of public health. Her statement comes in the wake of at least 32 UK universities experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks at the time of publication.
This now includes Newcastle University, with 62 positive cases confirmed within the Newcastle and Northumbria student bodies. Many of the city’s 50 000 students have returned in the past two weeks from other regions and even other countries in anticipation of some form of on-campus teaching.
Thousands of students across the country are currently locked down in halls, in an attempt to prevent large-scale spread as their peers migrate en masse. Among them are 1 700 at Manchester Metropolitan University. These students have been encouraged to use food delivery services and are banned from leaving their accommodation, including to exercise or buy food. Campus security and local police are enforcing these measures, with students being instructed to remove signs saying “Let us out” and “Cheers Bojo” from their windows.
In Scotland, guidance has been issued by Universities Scotland in conjunction with the Scottish Government. It instructs students not to socialise outside of their households or visit hospitality venues this weekend. Lucy Mair, the mother of a Glasgow University student, explained the circumstances of those locked down in Glasgow’s halls to The Guardian:
“When they had to ring and ask what they should do about food and laundry they were told to wash their clothes in their bathtub and that they would have to sort their own supermarket food delivery, it took them three days to get a slot.
“There is no welfare support, mental health support, daily check-in to see if they are OK and need anything, even though they have two 17-year-olds amongst them for whom the university has an extra duty of care.”
Dr Grady expressed her frustration that the UCU predicted these outbreaks nearly a month ago and no action was taken by providers: “This was avoidable. Students have been lured back to campus on the broken promise that this will be like any other year… and delivered another term of chaos because the government won’t fund the sector properly.” In an interview with The Guardian, she warned that “If [Vice Chancellors] don’t do something now, all their efforts will be undone in a few weeks because the number of infections will be so high, or there won’t be enough staff to teach.”
Larissa Kennedy, President of the National Union of Students (NUS) also suggested that universities were prioritising income over welfare and consumer rights: “We can all see that this is a completely unsafe situation,” she said. “Universities were more concerned about tuition fee income and the government more concerned with making sure that the rental sector stays afloat, than making sure that safety was the priority.”
“If universities were fully funded, I have no doubt we’d be in a completely different situation. If we’re going to see universities act in the interest of student and community safety, the government needs to underwrite this with a real sense of urgency.”
Newcastle UCU revealed on Twitter that they had requested information from the University about coronavirus cases and a week later received no response. The University have not committed to testing students and staff returning to campus, providing tests to those with symptoms or assisting with testing beyond what is accessible through the NHS.
However, they have arranged a “buddy” system to support those self-isolating, as well as offering to deliver food and medication to students who are vulnerable. They are also putting in place an “early warning system” through which students can report symptoms of coronavirus and log others they have been in contact with.
Featured Image: Jeff J Mitchell on Getty Images
Last modified: 27th September 2020