Many universities are hesitating to move to online teaching to quell Covid because they are desperate to keep disenchanted students until the Christmas holidays, when a key deadline for fee rebates runs out, experts say.
In England, students who drop out in their first term are liable for only 25% of their £9,250 fees. However, many will be unaware that if they leave after their institution’s term 1 cut-off date, they have to pay half their course fees, or £4,625.
So far the universities of Nottingham, Manchester, Northumbria, Sheffield and Newcastle have each reported more than 1,000 confirmed Covid cases among students and staff, and others are experiencing a rapid increase. Some institutions, though, are not publishing numbers of cases.
Vicky Blake, president of the Universities and Colleges Union, says: “There is a real question as to why universities haven’t taken what would, by any measure, be a sensible planning decision at this point and suspended face-to-face teaching. I think it has to be about fees, and that is disgusting.” She adds: “The longer universities can keep the students there, the more money they are entitled to. It is grim when you patch together what is probably behind all this.”
Blake says the union is being inundated with “horror stories” about staff and student wellbeing. “I keep hearing that staff are being told not to isolate even though their students have tested positive. Some are teaching in poorly ventilated spaces. Cleaners aren’t being clearly told which flats are isolating. Students don’t know that the flat down the corridor has Covid.”
Simon Marginson, professor of higher education at Oxford University, says that universities are becoming like “incubation chambers for the pandemic in local communities, like arsonists amplifying a fire”. He says that despite believing in their duty of care to their students, universities are being forced to focus on fee income because the government has failed to offer them any financial support if they lose students and is pushing them to remain open.
In England, some institutions say anyone leaving after the autumn reading week will have to pay half their fees, while others count the cutoff from the end of this term or the first day of the new one in January. Scottish universities lose the whole year’s fees for every Scottish student who leaves before 1 December, according to the Scottish Awards Agency.
However, Marginson believes university managers are wrong to predict thousands of students would drop out if they were sent home to study online. “Where courses are going wholly online now, this is not triggering mass withdrawals,” he says. “In the context of a collapsed youth labour market and a prolonged recession to come, an online higher education and a degree is a much better outcome than no degree. Students and their families know this.”
Meanwhile, the UCU says it is receiving reports of staff self-medicating for stress, with many intensely anxious about teaching face to face.
An academic at Manchester Metropolitan University, says terrified staff are being told they don’t need to isolate even if they have taught a student who has tested positive. “A student in one colleague’s classes tested positive and the lecturer only found out because the student contacted him direct.
“The safety measures put in place in my building were beyond pathetic,” the academic says. “We were told we couldn’t tell students to wear masks in class as they wouldn’t like it. And there are several exterior doors, but we are all leaving and arriving through the same door. Signs say ‘keep distanced if possible’. It’s a joke.”
A spokesperson for the university says most buildings have separate entrances and exits, one-way systems and hand sanitisers. The university provides all students with a face covering which they must wear in communal areas, but once in classrooms, with social distancing, “students decide” whether to wear it. “We let staff know if a student with whom they have been within a 2 metre distance tests positive and provide support and guidance,” he says.
At Nottingham University, 254 staff have signed a furious open letter to their vice-chancellor, condemning a call for lecturers to volunteer to sit in student halls in which students are isolating to offer advice, as well as answering helplines. The letter says that “asking staff to de-prioritise primary job responsibilities and volunteer for roles for which they are not trained” will “erode the experience students deserve” and worsen the “already deteriorating working conditions of staff in a time of crisis”.
One lecturer, who asks to remain anonymous, is “outraged” that the university wants to station staff in halls where cases are spreading. “The university knows how fearful many staff are about teaching in classrooms. What universe are they living on? They are calling for 90 staff a day to put aside their primary roles and essentially work in a call centre.”
A University of Nottingham spokesperson says the new help centre will “streamline” support services and give students, parents and staff advice about the measures the university has in place. “We asked for volunteers to help out where and if their other duties allow.”
A lecturer at Bournemouth University, who wants to be anonymous, is angry that the university has not made its Covid numbers public. “Every single student hall at Bournemouth has cases, from a single isolation, to a whole corridor. There are more than 100 cases but the management thinks this should be kept confidential.”
Bournemouth has agreed that most teaching will be online until January, but the lecturer says managers are not being honest with students about the likelihood that it will be online next term too. “They fear students will say ‘What? You brought me here and stuck me in this little cell and you’re expecting me to be here till March?’”
A spokesperson for Bournemouth says the university gives students and staff “the latest information” every Thursday by email. “Exact information is being shared with those who need it, and we’re reviewing our reporting structure regularly.” He says the university is working closely with the local authority and Public Health England to respond “quickly and appropriately” to all positive test results.
Students across the UK are continuing to use social media to protest about being isolated. Laura Howes, 19, a student at the University of West London, put out an appeal on Twitter saying she and her flatmates had received no help from the university when they had been unable to book a supermarket delivery slot.
The university this week announced new measures to help isolating students, including weekly fruit and vegetable parcels and a buddy scheme for lonely students, but Howes says when her flatmate tested positive they were treated “with a basic lack of humanity”.
“We set up a food bank in our kitchen with donations from kind people outside the university, as no one was helping us. One lady has gathered her neighbours together to help and risked her own health to drop off food twice, even though she is struggling for money herself.”
Sara Raybould, UWL’s pro-vice chancellor for student experience, says: “We are committed to supporting all our students during this difficult time and we are constantly reviewing our services based on feedback to provide the level of support our students require.”
A spokeswoman for Universities UK, which represents vice-chancellors, called on the government to do more to help, with a test and trace strategy for universities. “Universities continue to adhere to the government’s guidance. Wide-ranging safety measures are in place to reduce risks with universities continuing to deliver an engaging learning experience.
“It is more important than ever that the government commits to a mass testing strategy for university students and staff, with rapid turnaround of results and effective tracing of contacts.”
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