The Speaker
Thursday, 13 June 2024 – 08:39

In Focus: COVID Crisis in Universities

University students were encouraged to head back to campuses ready for the new term, but now, thousands are in lockdown and seeing headlines warning that they may not be able to travel home for Christmas.

The last 12 months have been a turbulent time for university students – Michaelmas Term 2019 saw UCU strikes, Lent Term 2020 saw even more disruptive strikes and Summer Term 2020 was effectively cancelled for most students as the pandemic and subsequent lockdown hit the UK. 

Most students saw all of their face-to-face teaching cancelled from mid-March. Some students managed to make it home to then be locked down for months, while others got stranded on university campuses, with travel to their home countries restricted or made incredibly difficult by Coronavirus restrictions. 

The experiences for university students varied during the six months from March to September, however, it is fair to say that in general, student experiences were poor. Being isolated either at or away from university and missing out on face-to-face education was a difficult experience for many students. When faced with a choice of whether or not to return to their university towns for the new academic year which is now getting underway, some decided to ‘defer’ their studies due to concerns over the damage to student learning and experiences during the pandemic – but many more have returned to their university campuses, cities and towns to resume their studies.

The Government was clear in its messaging that it wanted school children to return to schools as a top priority. There was much less emphasis on the messaging regarding universities, but it has been indicated on many occasions that the Government wanted to see students returning to universities. Many have argued that this is important both for the purposes of education but also to boost the mental health of students.

In June, facing questions from the House of Commons Petitions Committee, the UK Government’s Minister for Universities, Michelle Donelan MP said that universities had remained open and that many students had been receiving online teaching, adding that online teaching is not necessarily inferior to face-to-face teaching. She said that she believed universities had ‘risen to the challenge’ presented by COVID-19, adding that institutions should be making clear to students and applicants what will be on offer in the new academic year, saying that for many universities, this will involve a blended learning approach with a mixture of online and face-to-face teaching.

This month, new and returning students have been moving into student accommodation. The ‘blended’ or in some case ‘online only’ approaches taken by universities has meant that some students are staying at home and commuting when they have to, but the movement of students has still been highly significant and has inevitably carried the risk of COVID-19 spreading.

Many universities have set out their own ‘COVID Safety’ rules, but for many parts of the country, these rules are already in place in law. The banning of gatherings and visiting of other households are rules in effect in many places and most students have been facing Freshers Weeks over technologies such as Microsoft Teams rather than face-to-face in bars and nightclubs.

Rules are in place, though some are following them less than others. What hasn’t been put in place is a national campaign or system to get university students tested for COVID-19. When large numbers of people travel to university destinations from all different places, it seems highly likely that Coronavirus infections will increase.

While for some young people the effects of COVID-19 on their health can be very serious, many young people may only get mild or unnoticeable symptoms when contracting the virus. Without testing all arrivals to campuses, this can mean it is difficult to know who has the virus – making it easier for it to spread. This has consequently led to hundreds of students that have been tested testing positive in recent days and weeks and then thousands of students being put into lockdown.


Current Outbreaks of COVID-19 at UK Universities

A significant number of universities in the UK are experiencing outbreaks of the Coronavirus and it is likely that this number will rise further in the coming days. Some of the key outbreaks include;

  • University of Liverpool – 108 confirmed cases
  • Exeter University – At least 29 confirmed cases
  • Dundee University – On Wednesday, 500 students in a private accommodation block were asked to self-isolate
  • Manchester Metropolitan University – 127 cases confirmed and around 1,700 students asked to self-isolate for 14 days
  • University of Glasgow – 172 confirmed cases and around 600 students self-isolating

Many more universities have confirmed cases, generally with only a small proportion of their student population being infected. At the University of Glasgow, students who are self-isolating are to be provided with a one-month rent refund plus a £50 payment for food – however, students who are self-isolating at some universities have complained on social media about limited support being offered.


Will students be able to return home by Christmas?

Multiple headlines over recent days have pointed to the possibility that the Government may tell students that they cannot travel home for Christmas.

On Sunday, Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden told Sky News’ Sophy Ridge said that he didn’t “think it’s helpful at this stage three months away to speculate”, but said that students should able to return home to their families for Christmas if the public sticks to new restrictions.

The suggestion that students may be forced to remain at universities over Christmas has sparked concerns within the Higher Education sector, among politicians and among parents of students who are currently at university.

Shadow Education Secretary Kate Green has urged Education Secretary Gavin Williamson to provide “urgent clarity an reassurance on the issue”, while Labour has also called for a testing provision for students. Conservative MP and Chair of the Commons Education Select Committee Robert Halfon has also called for a testing system to be implemented. 


Should students be paying £9,250 for remote teaching?

Many students have expressed beliefs over recent months that they’re simply not getting value for money from their university. Despite face-to-face teaching being cancelled, many campus facilities closed and assessments being disrupted, the vast majority of students received no form of tuition fees refund for the last academic year.

More than 351,000 people signed an e-petition calling for the Government to reimburse all students of this year’s fees due to strikes and COVID-19, however, the Government said that any claims for refunds of fees need to reviewed on a “case-by-case” basis. The Government has also said that universities can continue to undergraduate charge fees as high as £9,250 a year (and higher for international students), despite teaching and the use of facilities being limited in most cases.

Many universities saw their finances hit badly by the pandemic. At some universities, students are actively campaigning for fees to be reduced, though it seems unlikely that this will happen without support and intervention at a Government level.


The Blame Game

Some young people feel they are being unfairly blamed for rising Coronavirus cases in the UK.

Students are facing huge restrictions and limits on their normal university experience. Many are abiding by the rules, but inevitably not everybody is, as is the case in the wider public where large fines have been introduced for rule breaches.

Some government ministers have indicated in recent times that they believe the public and especially young people are to blame for cases rising, but many young people simply find this unfair and feel that the Government haven’t provided enough support, with no national testing provision for students and clear issues with the national Test & Trace system including testing shortages.


With more students testing positive and facing quarantine, the topic of Coronavirus at universities is expected to be a prominent topic of political discussion in the coming week, with MPs from both sides of the House of Commons calling for clarity, reassurances and action on the key issues.

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