News round-up: Students banned from socialising after spikes in Covid-19 cases

As students returned to campuses and moved into residential halls across the UK, clusters of coronavirus cases began to emerge. Some universities have responded by halting in-person teaching, while others have gone as far as banning students from socialising completely.


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How many students arriving at UK universities are Covid-positive?USS Briefs, Andrew Chitty, 21/09/2020

By now it is too late to prevent the migration of between one and two million students to university towns and halls of residence over the course of this month, and the inevitable multiple outbreaks that will result. But universities have it in their power to mitigate this outcome to the maximum by taking all teaching online this term, and by simultaneously announcing that they will release all students who decide they do not want to move into university accommodation from their contracts. No doubt this will cause financial losses. But in the face of a disease that is lethal for some and, regardless of age, causes prolonged debilitation for a significant proportion, universities’ duty of care to their students, their staff and their local communities must take absolute precedence.

Give students right to return home and switch to online teaching, say scientists Independent, 29/09/2020

University students must be given “the right to return home” to study and claim a refund on their accommodation, the Independent Sage group has urged. The panel of scientific experts said the measures were urgently necessary to address a “rapidly deteriorating situation” in halls of residence across the UK. They recommend that all teaching should be delivered online “by default” and that in-person tutoring should only take place if regular testing is available. The group issued their latest report in the wake of attempts by Manchester Metropolitan Unversity to lock up to 1,700 students in their accommodation over the weekend after an outbreak of coronavirus.

‘They see us as heavy-drinking nuisances’: students face Covid marshals – The Guardian, 20/09/2020

In Newcastle, police will carry out “high visibility” patrols in student hubs every night until Christmas, with the city’s two main universities picking up the bill. Newcastle and Northumbria universities said they would provide the additional funding as part of their Operation Oak community initiative, which already costs £125,000 a year. Police will be present in places with high student numbers such as Jesmond, a suburb in the north of Newcastle known for its lively party scene. Officers were called to the area several times during lockdown following reports of student gatherings.

770 students at Northumbria University test positive for coronavirus – The Guardian, 02/10/2020

Northumbria University has said 770 of its students have tested positive for Covid-19, in one of the UK’s largest single-site coronavirus outbreaks, as other universities across the country reported surging case numbers. The Newcastle outbreak has taken the total number of cases among students to more than 2,000 across 65 universities, with most testing positive in the last week. Northumbria’s leaders said Covid-free students would still be able to attend classes in person and use shared facilities such as libraries, despite the size of the outbreak.

UK academics ‘at breaking point’ over shift to online teaching – Times Higher Education, 18/09/2020

Academics across the UK are “at breaking point” as a result of the pressure to shift their teaching online, according to one mental health expert, who urged caution over judging the success of remote learning based on the upcoming academic year. Nicola Byrom, senior lecturer in psychology at King’s College London and founder of the charity Student Minds, said the Covid-19 pandemic had created “a real opportunity to improve accessibility” to higher education and “to make the learning experience better for students” by embracing technology. However, she said, there were “limits” to capitalising on the crisis and universities needed to “stay mindful of the scale of the challenge”.

Reopening for in-person teaching may have caused thousands of Covid cases a day – The Chronicle, 22/09/2020

Colleges that reopened for in-person instruction this fall probably contributed more than 3,000 Covid-19 cases a day in their counties that wouldn’t have emerged if they’d remained online, according to a report released on Tuesday. The report was based on a study conducted by researchers in epidemiology, health economics, and higher education at Davidson College, Indiana University at Bloomington, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and the University of Washington. It found that reopening for face-to-face instruction, which prompted far more students to return to campuses, resulted in 1,000 to 5,000 additional cases per day, with the best estimate around 3,200.

Hundreds of thousands of students in Scotland banned from socialising – The Guardian, 24/09/2020

Hundreds of thousands of students in Scotland have been banned from socialising and going to bars as coronavirus cases spread to more than 20 universities across the UK. In a set of rules agreed by Scottish university leaders, students across the country were told they will not be allowed to socialise outside their households. They were also told to avoid bars, pubs and other venues completely this weekend. The new rules include the adoption of a “yellow card/red card” disciplinary system which could lead to students losing their places, while police will help tackle rule-breaking.

UK universities ‘bullying’ junior staff into face-to-face teaching – The Guardian, 25/09/2020

Universities insist the safety of staff, students and local residents is their priority. But the union says it is being deluged with pleas for help from staff on precarious contracts who feel unable to refuse to teach face-to-face, but are deeply fearful about the risks. “We are operating in the context of redundancy announcements. It makes it feel very difficult to put your head above the parapet,” Blake says. One academic at a Russell Group university, who asked not to be named, said her university had dismissed her concerns about infecting her partner, who has type 1 diabetes and is therefore at an increased risk from coronavirus. “We live in a shared studio apartment with no room to quarantine,” she says. “I reported this, along with my own concerns about being BAME, but my head of department has told me I don’t understand the science and the classroom is the safest place to be.”

What are students’ expectations for this academic year? – HEPI, 1/10/2020

When we asked students about their expectations of how the next year would operate, there were some clear groupings. Around three-quarters of students expected increased hygiene measures to be in place, some learning to take place online and social distancing measures to be rolled out across campuses. Over half expected limitations to both their interactions with other students and their access to facilities. Only around a quarter expected limitations to their courses or a delayed start to term and less than a fifth expected all learning to take place online.

How universities tricked students into returning to campus – The Guardian, 02/10/2020

Yet after years of pushing to expand online learning and “lecture capture” on the basis that it is what students want, university managers have decided that what students really want now, during a global pandemic, is face-to-face contact. This sudden-onset fetish reached its most perverse extreme in the case of Boston University, which, realising that many teaching rooms lack good ventilation or even windows, decided to order “giant air circulators”, only to discover that the air circulators were very noisy. Apparently unable to source enough “mufflers” for the air circulators, the university ordered Bluetooth headsets to enable students and teachers to communicate over the roar of machinery. All of which raises the question: why? The determination to bring students back to campus at any cost doesn’t stem from a dewy-eyed appreciation of in-person pedagogy, nor from concerns about the impact of isolation on students’ mental health. If university managers had any interest in such things, they would not have spent years cutting back on study skills support and counselling services.

University coronavirus cases show the Government made a mistake – and it’s students who’ll be blamed – iNews, 25/09/2020

We cannot have students forced to quarantine in halls of residence with no familiar support network, or staff forced to carry out work on site that could be conducted more safely from home. And we should not be using students as scapegoats in a crisis of the Government’s making. Instead, the Government and universities must address this public health crisis immediately. Thousands more students are about to needlessly move across the country over the weekend. This needs to be stopped. At the same time, a strategy must be developed to allow students to safely leave campuses and be released from accommodation contracts – I suspect that universities’ need to guarantee accommodation revenue is one of the main reasons they have been reluctant to put safety first.

Why aren’t students getting clarity on compensation and refunds? – Wonkhe, 29/09/2020

I’m going to assume that when the DfE Higher Education Taskforce next meets to discuss refunds, everyone around the table will agree that whoever it is that should pay, it’s definitely not them. There’s both a legal and a moral case for fee refunds. I won’t repeat the moral case in detail here, save to say that you just have to tune in to almost any of the radio phone ins right now to hear it. Nobody else in society is invited to invest this much money – with no second chance – to experience in totality something both so materially different to that which was promised and with the threat of draconian restrictions on civil liberties (beyond those experienced by the general public) chucked in for free.

‘Colleagues are penalised for raising health and safety issues’: a lecturer’s freshers’ week diary – The Guardian, 02/10/2020

Other universities have locked their students down in halls of residence, and the return of students to university areas seems to be causing outbreaks. Is anyone actually surprised? Another worrying headline: scientists think universities should only have a third of their students on campus. We have more than two-thirds of our student body returning, so we may have a lot of work to redo timetables. Today we were all supposed to attend an induction event for freshers on campus, but only half of us are here. A few of my colleagues objected, citing the government’s latest directive about doing everything you can from home. I came to avoid the inevitable hassle of getting penalised for complaining. Many of my colleagues who have raised health and safety issues have been given extra work or had their teaching preparation efforts weirdly scrutinised.

If campuses are at 30% capacity, why are halls at 100%? – Wonkhe,

We spent the summer carefully reducing the capacity of lecture theatres, classrooms, libraries, toilets, corridors, catering outlets and social space – whilst our communities spent the summer carefully the reducing the capacity of cafes, bars, nightclubs, public transport and shops. While all of that tumbled to 30%, we left student accommodation at 100% – and in the absence of an alternative vision, our assumption by default became that students will spend even more time in student accommodation than usual, because of the lower capacity available to students to spend their days on campus and in the community. In other words, our plan has been to keep people carefully apart for three or four hours a week, but for the rest of the week to ram them into spaces never designed to be used this intensively, with inevitable results.

Universities are failing to address racism on campus – Times Higher Education, 02/10/2020

Over and above the inadequacies of complaints procedures and tribunals, there is also a more fundamental issue: universities do not understand the scale of the problem they face, because they lack any good data on the topic. Without hard data to back up their anti-racist statements, universities’ claims that they are becoming more inclusive spaces just invite scepticism. Figuring out an easy way for students to report complaints of racism, anonymously or not, would be an excellent start. Institutions certainly shouldn’t have to rely on Instagram to see how they are failing their students. 

Schools in England told not to use material from anti-capitalist groups – The Guardian, 27/09/2020

The government has ordered schools in England not to use resources from organisations which have expressed a desire to end capitalism. Department for Education (DfE) guidance for school leaders and teachers involved in setting the relationship, sex and health curriculum categorised anti-capitalism as an “extreme political stance” and equated it with opposition to freedom of speech, antisemitism and endorsement of illegal activity. It listed examples of what were described as “extreme political stances”, such as “a publicly stated desire to abolish or overthrow democracy, capitalism, or to end free and fair elections”; opposition to freedom of speech; the use of racist, including antisemitic, language; the endorsement of illegal activity; and a failure to condemn illegal activities done in support of their cause.

Does academic freedom permit no-platforming? – Wonkhe, 2/10/2020

According to the bog-standard arguments over free speech, everybody is entitled to their say; no one should be stifled for saying something unpopular, stupid or wrong. But remember that academic freedom and free speech are not the same (Policy Exchange calls the distinction “blurry”). There must be an inequality in the worth of views expressed in an academy. The authors return to Policy Exchange’s account of academic freedom, writing that it is about giving academics “a certain kind of independence” from outside influence. But even if that independence were granted by a brave university, it is not the same as a guaranteed teaching position. Censoring a “crank” on campus is not just permissible but the right thing to do. A university is right to stop a flat-earther speaking at a public event on campus; and its geology department is right to sack a geologist who advances flat-Earth theories:

The Students Left Behind by Remote Learning – The New Yorker, 28/09/2020

There has always been a gulf between public education and private. But the new disparity is stark: in many cities, children in private schools are going to school, and children in public schools are not. (Among such places is Prince Edward County.) A nationwide survey by the education-news network Chalkbeat and the Associated Press found that roughly half of white students had the option of in-person instruction, while only about a quarter of Black and Hispanic students did. After a summer of renewed attention on the disparities facing Black people, millions of Black children would not be getting in-person education.