News round-up: Tensions grow over the return of staff and students to university campuses

Once again, the return of staff and students to university campuses has dominated Higher Education news. UCU insist that the risks of spreading Covid-19 is still far too high, especially without proper Track and Trace and testing protocols in place. Meanwhile, the DfE discussed new legislation to “protect free speech and academic freedom” at universities, sparking fresh debate about university autonomy.

SAGE publish report on Covid transmission at universities – SAGE, 3/09/2020

There is a significant risk that Higher Education (HE) could amplify local and national transmission, and this requires national oversight. It is highly likely that there will be significant outbreaks associated with HE, and asymptomatic transmission may make these harder to detect. Outbreak response requires both local plans and coordinated national oversight and decision-making.

Make universities Covid-safe or risks trikes, warns unionThe Times, 06/09/2020

UCU’s general secretary, Jo Grady, has claimed that universities could become “the care homes of a second wave”. The union, which has co-ordinated strikes in recent years, is backing local campaigns against the return of staff and students. Grady said much of the proposed teaching this term was “19th-century”, with students in rows facing the front. UCU urged its branches last week to ask universities to share risk assessments and testing arrangements. “[Testing] is not being resourced at a national level,” said Paul Bridge, the union’s head of higher education.

One in four students unable to access online learning during lockdownThe Guardian, 8/09/2020

Over a quarter (27%) of university students were unable to access online learning during the Covid-19 lockdown, according to new research which suggests that disabled students and those from poorer backgrounds were worst affected. The survey, which was carried out in July by the National Union of Students (NUS), found that disruptions to studies arose from a lack of IT equipment and software, insufficient course materials, and poor internet connections.

Cambridge college threatens to evict students if a Covid-19 outbreak occurs – The Guardian, 16/09/2020

Trinity College, which has reported assets of £1.5bn, has told students living in the college’s halls of residence to sign a new contract that warns they will be “required to move, without help from college, to alternative college accommodation, or out of college, at very short notice”. “If college accommodation is withdrawn from you, you must return home or find alternative accommodation elsewhere, at your own cost. The college will provide temporary alternative safe accommodation at another location only if there is a truly exceptional reason as to why you cannot obtain alternative accommodation,” the agreement states.

Plans to keep Covid-hit students on campuses ‘irresponsible’ – Times Higher Education, 09/09/2020

The University and College Union has described the Westminster government’s plan to keep students on campuses in the event of a coronavirus outbreak as “ridiculously irresponsible”. Speaking at a press conference on 9 September, Boris Johnson said guidance on reopening higher education institutions would include “a clear request not to send students home in the event of an outbreak, so as to avoid spreading the virus across the country”.

‘Radical’ review from NSS as ministers say it drives down standards – Times Higher Education, 10/09/2020

The UK’s National Student Survey is to undergo a “radical, root and branch” review as part of a series of measures announced by the Westminster government on cutting red tape in higher education. In a policy paper on “reducing bureaucratic burden in research, innovation and higher education”, the government says that the annual survey had “exerted a downwards pressure on standards within our higher education system”.

New Covid plan for England could confine university students to halls – The Guardian, 10/09/2020

The DfE’s guidelines call for universities to take a host of measures to combat the spread of the virus, but warns that institutions must “have the right plans in place to control and manage any local outbreaks” while also encouraging safe social interaction. University administrators were scrambling to understand how the new policies would affect plans they have already drawn up, with some students and staff having arrived on campus this week, and lectures started at some institutions.

For maximum Covid compliance, build bridges with students, not barriers – Times Higher Education, 06/09/2020

More than six million Covid-19 infections and almost 190,000 deaths in the US have squelched any hope of a normal campus life, even if the 18-24-year-old age group has been spared the worst of these outcomes. But colleges are placing a heavy emotional weight on students, and expecting them to adapt instantly to a radically different education environment is naive. Blaming them for their behaviour would be like chastising a novice tennis player for not playing like a professional.

Covid is a social crisis;” the university staff and students filling the welfare gap – The Guardian, 09/09/2020

This type of community work is threatened by the fact that universities also face unprecedented economic challenges. Analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies warned that UK institutions could lose as much as a quarter of their total income this year. While more recent projections have indicated lesser losses thanks to higher than expected student demand, budgets will still have to be tightened due to the uncertainty.

Universities are being forced to lie about being Covid safeOpen Democracy, 10/09/2020

The position of universities is fraudulent and utterly immoral: they are prepared to let people get ill and even die to keep themselves afloat. But perhaps we should not be too harsh on individual institutions, for really the problem is the system itself. If it is financially impossible for Higher Education to keep students and staff safe then something has gone badly wrong with our funding model. The consumerist system of Higher Education is leading us down a path that will inevitably lead to additional deaths. We need a radical rethink.

Higher Education in the UK is morally bankrupt – The Guardian, 08/09/2020

Young people are told they are “consumers” in a shop where they can choose what and when to learn. They can expect a “service”. Some have taken their university to court if their course did not “deliver” promised results. This is no longer a viable, decent learning environment in which students from all walks of life and cultures are supported to achieve their potential. This is not a place in which the next generation of citizens can flourish. The rise in the number of students suffering from mental health issue speaks volumes. A student suicide is “managed” by the media department for fear of bad publicity. What matters are “bums on seat” to keep the ship afloat.

Reopening universities isn’t just a threat to staff and students, it’s a threat to communities too – Novara Media, 11/09/2020

Is it fair to place such responsibility on university management? Surely they’re just trying to do their best to stop British universities going bankrupt in the wake of the pandemic-induced recession? For lecturers like myself, who have long opposed the marketisation of the university system, it is a bitter irony that it is precisely neoliberal decisions to profit from exorbitant fees charged to international students, high rents for student residences, and turning campuses into private conference facilities, that have put us in this situation. It is this transformation of our universities into businesses that makes them vulnerable to the economic downturn and Covid-19 travel restrictions. If we had simply carried out our remit as places of public education, we would have been far less adversely affected.

How colleges became the new Covid hot spots – New York Times, 16/09/2020

It began last month with a trickle of coronavirus infections as college students arrived for the fall semester. Soon that trickle became a stream, with campuses reporting dozens, and sometimes hundreds, of new cases each day. Now that stream feels like a flood. In just the past week, a New York Times survey has found, American colleges and universities have recorded more than 36,000 additional coronavirus cases, bringing the total of campus infections to 88,000 since the pandemic began. Not all of those cases are new, and the increase is partly the result of more schools beginning to report the results of increased coronavirus testing. But The Times survey of 1,600 institutions also shows how widely the contagion has spread, with schools of every type and size, and in every state, reporting infections.

200 jobs at risk at Bangor University – BBC News, 11/09/2020

Bangor University, which has more than 2,000 staff, said a fall in the number of international students enrolling had forced it to make savings. Local politicians said the potential job losses were a “severe blow” to the area, the university said it had tried to minimise the impact of Covid-19. “The university has started a period of consultation on how these savings might best be achieved,” it said. “Students are at the heart of the university and our priority in any changes will be to ensure that their experience is not only protected but also enhanced.”

UK universities see record admissions, despite the pandemic – Financial Times, 15/09/2020

UK universities are heading for a “bumper year” of new admissions, according to preliminary figures, defying warnings of a downturn because of coronavirus. Data from the University and College Admissions Service analysed by DataHE, a consultancy, indicates that 22 days after A-level results 508,090 applicants had accepted places at universities across the UK, an increase of 3.5 per cent compared with the same time in 2019. The figures put the sector, which feared a sharp fall in admissions as a result of the pandemic, on course for a record year. But experts warn that final numbers remain uncertain and universities still face months of volatility.

Campus free speech legislation ‘to target students’ unions’ Times Higher Education, 16/09/2020

Legislation on free speech in English universities being discussed by the Westminster government is expected to target students’ unions by putting them under extended statutory duties and threatening fines. Speaking in the House of Commons last week, Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, said the government was “exploring a range of legislative and non-legislative options” to protect free speech on campuses, following the Conservative manifesto pledge to “strengthen academic freedom and free speech in universities”. Any legislation on free speech in universities – a hot-button issue for the right in the US and now in the UK – is certain to prove highly controversial and bring concerns over potential threats to university autonomy.

Cracking Down on Student DissentTribune, 16/09/2020

Of the twenty or so young activists involved in the occupation of a management building at the University of Sterling, thirteen were given suspensions, bans from classes, and were restricted from accessing almost all support services. Among those involved in the occupation, Morgan faced the heaviest punishment with a year’s suspension. Without a job during a global crisis, he was forced onto Universal Credit. A further two – Lauren Harper and Aaron Caulfield – were given a full semester’s ban from the university, while all three were hit with hundreds of pounds in fines.

Student ‘felt silenced by De Montfort University’ after alleged groping – BBC News, 09/09/2020

A former student has said she “felt silenced” by her university after she alleged she was groped by a professor at a Christmas party.The graduate reported her allegations in 2018 to Leicester’s De Montfort University (DMU), where the man continues to teach.She said the alleged assault and DMU’s response led to an attempt to take her own life.A university spokesman said DMU had taken “appropriate action”.The student, who graduated in 2020 and who wishes to remain anonymous, said: “He’s still teaching, he’s allowed around young people.”They take plagiarism more seriously than sexual assault.”

Covid-19: less than 1 in 4 staff feel safe returning to campus – Times Higher Education, 17/09/2020

Less than one in four university staff feel safe returning to work on campus as coronavirus continues to spread, according to a global survey conducted by Times Higher Education. In the survey, which was completed by 1,195 academics and higher education professionals around the world, nearly nine out of 10 respondents said that they were concerned that reopening campuses could lead to a spike in Covid-19 cases in their area. By a two-to-one margin, respondents identified financial concerns as the key factor in institutions’ reopening plans, ahead of staff and student safety.

Up to 25,000 teachers in England self-isolating due to Covid fears – The Guardian, 16/09/2020

Up to 25,000 teachers in England may already have been forced out of the classroom and into self-isolation at home amid a national shortage of Covid tests just a fortnight after schools reopened, research suggests. With some schools reporting up to a fifth of their teaching staff off and unable to get a test, unions warned the crisis was spinning out of control and jeopardising plans for a full return to education, bringing the risk of “lockdown by default”.

Why are English schools being left to pay for Covid measures out of threadbare budgets? – The Guardian, 10/09/2020

In the case of any outbreak, schools will work under the direction of local public health teams, who will assess the situation and advise the school on the right course of action. In most cases, the advice will be that pupils and possibly adults who have come into contact with the person with the virus should isolate. Keeping children and adults in bubbles vastly reduces the likelihood that the whole school will be impacted by limited outbreaks, hopefully meaning the isolation of a section rather than an entire school. It is vital that we remember that if a school closes, it will be doing so at the direction of the local health team and it would be entirely wrong to criticise them for this or allege that there had been some sort of “failure” on the school’s behalf.