'Don’t scapegoat students over Covid outbreaks'

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News family and education correspondent

  • Published
Student returning for new termImage source, Jacob King

Students should not be made "scapegoats" for a wave of Covid outbreaks, says a lecturers' leader.

Jo Grady of the UCU university staff union said it was the "completely predictable" outcome of encouraging large numbers of students to return.

With universities in England starting term, she called for students to be able to study online from home.

The Department for Education says it is supporting universities to have a mix of online and face-to-face teaching.

In a further Covid outbreak, 1,700 students in two accommodation blocks at Manchester Metropolitan University have been told to stay in isolation for 14 days, after about 100 students tested positive.


The lecturers' union questioned the point of "encouraging students to come to university to self-isolate for a fortnight".

Dr Grady said tough restrictions on students in Scotland and increasing warnings for students in England did not mean outbreaks were a consequence of "reckless behaviour" by students.

Instead she said outbreaks were the result of universities pushing for "massive numbers" of students to come back to campuses for the "university experience" and to sign up for accommodation.

"As far as I'm concerned, they were mis-sold," Dr Grady told the BBC.

She said it was "irresponsible" of universities to have been "luring students back on the basis that they can have a social life at university and that they can have face-to-face teaching".

Rather than bringing back more students in England, she said more teaching should be put online and students should be able to study from home.

Cancelling accommodation

"I think there has to be an alternative to keeping students locked in absurdly expensive accommodation, rather than having them at home," said Dr Grady.

She called for students to be released from their housing contracts and for a way for them to be able to make a safe way home.

Dr Grady warned of an increasingly chaotic situation in universities and criticised the response of not letting students return home from their university accommodation.

She said this was based on a "boarding school" perception of university life, adding that it might be important for some students to be able to go home, for instance if they were homesick or living with people who they did not like or felt threatened by.

Dr Grady wants universities to reduce face-to-face teaching, but said some universities were only doing it "surreptitiously", because of fears "their nearest competitor isn't doing it".

Most universities were expecting to deliver lectures online, but it is also thought some seminars could be "live and interactive" but delivered online.

Liverpool Hope and Liverpool John Moores are among those that have publicly moved more teaching online.

Universities UK says it us up to each individual university to decide how they will bring back students and whether they will switch to online lessons.

The Department for Education said it was working with universities and Public Health England on any measures needed to respond to Covid outbreaks.

"Protecting students' education and wellbeing is vital, so we are supporting universities to continue delivering a blend of online and face-to-face learning where possible in a Covid-secure way," said a department spokeswoman.

"As with other essential services, education staff should continue to go into work where necessary."