Full-time residents of England's university towns and cities fear a rise in coronavirus cases as students return, suggests a survey for the University and College Union.
The union has previously urged universities to scrap face-to-face teaching until Christmas.
Its general secretary Jo Grady said the poll proved the union was right to call for online learning to be the default.
Universities have said steps are being taken to minimise risks on campuses.
Survation polled 1,012 people living in 25 towns and cities with large student populations. These included Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, Newcastle and Leicester where increased lockdown restrictions have been put in place.
More than half (57%) believed the return of students would result in extra restrictions.
When asked who they would blame for any rise in coronavirus cases:
- 48% said the government
- 23% students
- 7% universities
- and 21% said they did not know
On the subject of local track and trace systems, 57% said they were not confident these would be enough to help control a Covid-19 outbreak.
Half said face-to-face teaching should be cancelled this term, with students learning online as far as possible.
However 35% disagreed, saying face-to-face teaching should go ahead, while 15% said they did not know.
"The public are rightly concerned about the impact of tens of thousands of students moving across the country to their universities," said Dr Grady.
"People do not want to see local outbreaks on their doorstep."
A safe return?
Dr Grady said the evidence was clear that online learning should be the default position.
"Yet still ministers and vice-chancellors are insisting students should travel and universities should engage in face-to-face teaching, even in areas with local lockdowns.
"It cannot be business as normal at the moment and they need to stop pretending that is a credible option."
University leaders say they have working hard for months to ensure students can return to their campuses safely.
"Ensuring the health, safety and wellbeing of students, staff and local communities in the new academic year is the number one priority for universities," said a Universities UK spokeswoman.
UUK said institutions were taking action to encourage responsible student behaviour, would continue to follow the latest government and public health advice, and were working in partnership with local authorities and public health bodies "to ensure that effective and rapid outbreak response plans are in place and clearly understood".
Survation interviewed residents last weekend, aged over 18, in Birmingham, Bolton, Bournemouth, Bradford, Brighton, Bristol, Coventry, Derby, Hull, Leeds, Leicester, Liverpool, London, Luton, Manchester, Newcastle, Northampton, Nottingham, Plymouth, Portsmouth, Reading, Sheffield, Southampton, Stoke and Wolverhampton.