UK universities beginning the next academic year from September should not open campuses to prevent a major public health crisis, a leading union of lecturers warned on Sunday, given the risk to students moving across homes and campuses throughout the country amid the raging Covid-19 pandemic.
The warning comes within days of official statistics showing that more than double the number of student visas were issued to Indians in the year ending June 2020 compared to the previous year. Visa rules have been revised to allow for online learning, but universities have been bracing for a fall in non-EU students turning up next month.
The University and College Union (UCU) said the movement of over a million students across the UK to universities far from homes to begin courses “risks doing untold damage to people’s health and exacerbating the worst health crisis of our lifetimes”.
It wants all teaching to move online in the first term as recommended by experts in view of the coronavirus pandemic.
The union, which represents over 120,000 academics, lecturers, trainers, instructors, researchers, managers and other staff, alleged that there is no functioning track and trace system in place, nor any UK-wide plans to regularly test students or staff.
Claiming that the push to get students back on campus was being driven by what it called “a dangerous desire” to get back to business as usual, before it was safe to do so, the UCU said instead of allowing universities to reopen, the government should step in and underwrite any lost funding for the higher education sector.
The union said universities that rely on tuition and accommodation fees feared lost income and the government had to make it clear now that they will not suffer financially for doing the right thing in terms of public health.
UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: “Moving a million plus students around the country is a recipe for disaster and risks leaving ill-prepared universities as the care homes of a second wave. It is time for the government to finally take some decisive and responsible action in this crisis and tell universities to abandon plans for face-to-face teaching.”
“Refusing to act now will only store up problems further down the line as courses are forced to move online and students forced into lockdown. It is no good blaming students later on for a problem that could have been avoided by government action,” she added.
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