Politics

Coronavirus: Consider pause to university return, says Labour


Two students look out the window of their accommodation at Manchester Metropolitan University

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Students in some halls at Manchester Metropolitan University are locked down in halls

The government should consider pausing the return of university students with thousands of students already isolating amid Covid outbreaks, Labour has said.

Shadow education secretary Kate Green said the start of term should be delayed while an “effective, efficient testing system” is put in place.

Students have returned to many UK universities, with most having already started term or due to begin on Monday.

The Department for Education said it was working closely with universities.

Ms Green said Labour was concerned about the mental health impacts of students being isolated away from home and said all students should be given the option of remote learning.

“Mass testing is obviously what is needed,” she told BBC Breakfast.

“We do think it is important that students have a choice. If they feel they are going to be safer at home then they should be able to stay at home and conduct their learning remotely.”

Ms Green also called for a government promise that students will be allowed to return home for Christmas as it would be “unthinkable” that they could be locked in their halls and unable to see families, although she said “public health considerations” should always come first.

Earlier this week, Health Secretary Matt Hancock refused to rule out a ban on students returning home at Christmas, but added: “I don’t want to have a situation like that and I very much hope we can avoid it.”

He was responding to a question about concerns that students were spreading Covid-19, following local outbreaks on campuses.

Government scientific adviser Sir Mark Walport has also warned that students in virus hotspots might have to be forced to stay on campus over Christmas.

About 3,000 students are currently in lockdown at universities from Dundee to Exeter, the Conservative chairman of the Commons education select committee Robert Halfon has said.

They include up to 1,700 students at Manchester Metropolitan University – where students say they are being prevented from leaving by security guards and police.

Many students have expressed worry and confusion about the situation, with one saying they had “been left completely in the dark”.

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Media captionStudent Joe Gallagher believes the outbreak was “inevitable”

In a letter to Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, Ms Green accused the government of failing to prepare for the likelihood that the virus could spread among students.

“It is deeply distressing that so many will now not get the university experience they deserve, and face the appalling prospect of being locked in their rooms with no chance to make new friends,” she said.

The government had “let young people down with the exam fiasco over the summer, and now many of those same students are being let down again”, she said.

‘We had no warning’

Manchester Met said it had introduced a 14-day self-isolation period at its accommodation at Birley and Cambridge Halls after 127 students tested positive for the virus.

Joe Byrne, a first-year student there, said: “We have had no warning, support or advice from the university about how we get food etc, and instead have been left completely in the dark and practically locked up against our will.”

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PA Media

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Hundreds of students are also isolating at Glasgow University

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University campuses have put in social distancing measures

Another student, Megan Tingey said she was not contacted by the university about the lockdown before police turned up outside her accommodation.

“It was quite scary and confusing,” she said. “No one’s really told us much and then the police turn up as well with security outside.”

Thousands more students in England are turning up for the new university term this weekend – but the big question is whether they should be heading in the opposite direction and studying from home.

Is it wise or fair for universities to bring students back if they’re at increasing risk of being in a Covid outbreak and having to self-isolate?

Accommodation blocks, with shared facilities and filled with young people wanting to socialise, have already seen a wave of outbreaks. So should the brakes be applied to stop this pattern repeating itself?

But after recruiting record numbers of students and promising them a mix of online and face-to-face teaching, it is going to be a very awkward U-turn for universities to switch back to the academic equivalent of working from home.

And would that mean refunds on accommodation and tuition fees?

There are likely to be some chaotic days ahead – and some big decisions to be made about whether to cut numbers on campus. And students must wonder how they’ve gone from being cooped up at home all summer to now being cooped up in university.

In a statement, Manchester Met said it had communicated with students “as soon as we could but it was not possible to give significant advanced notice due to the requirement to implement the isolation almost immediately”.

It said details of how to access food and other provisions had been sent to students but warned security patrols had increased and students who breached requirements would face disciplinary action.

Hundreds of students are also isolating at Glasgow University because of two coronavirus clusters.

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Media captionNell Manson and Lucy Owens are self-isolating at the University of Glasgow

The university said it would offer a four-week rent rebate to all students in university residences in recognition of the “difficult circumstances” under which they were living.

It said those students would also be given £50 each to spend on food and it would invite local mobile food outlets to come to residences.

Dr David Duncan, chief operating officer at the University of Glasgow, said the university was surprised at the speed at which Covid had spread among students but it was trying to support them as best as possible.

However, he rejected calls for tuition fees to be refunded and said blended learning courses would be of high quality.

“Most students do want to go to their universities even under the present difficult circumstances, partly for social reasons but also for academic reasons,” he said. “It is easier to sustain a difficult academic programme when you have the company of other learners with you, so in many ways we have responded to student demand.”

Across all of Scotland, students have been told not to go to pubs, parties or restaurants over the weekend. Universities Scotland has said students who socialise with anyone outside of their household risk losing their place at university.

A Department for Education spokeswoman said the government was working closely with universities in England to ensure they were well prepared for students to return and would continue to monitor the situation, and public health advice.

She said: “Students should follow the latest health advice – just like the wider public. They should stay at university in the event that they have symptoms, have to isolate, there are additional restrictions imposed locally, or there is an outbreak on campus or in their accommodation.”

Jamie Greene, Scottish Conservatives shadow cabinet secretary for education, called for clarity for students from the Scottish government and said they should be treated “with respect and as adults”.

He tweeted: “There is a duty on all of us, not least those issuing guidance, rules and laws, to offer clarity, fairness and respect to young people.”

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has said students were not to blame for outbreaks at universities. “The sooner we get this under control the sooner you will enjoy a normal student life,” she said.

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