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.
Bosses backed down after the students compared their situation to being in prison and human rights lawyers suggested it could amount to false imprisonment.
Universities in Edinburgh and Glasgow also tried to ban students returning home or visiting pubs and restaurants before the Scottish Government issued updated guidance, while the University of Exeter asked students not to meet indoors with anyone not in their household following a “continued rise in Covid-19 cases”.
One student at the University of Edinburgh described a “complete disaster” which left him with no food for two days while in self-isolation. The university admitted there had been “initial teething problems” but said staff were now providing three meals a day, with vegan and gluten-free options.
Independent Sage said recent outbreaks suggested they had been right to call last month for the academic year to start with as much online study as possible in order to avoid outbreaks at the start of the autumn term – as was predicted by the government’s advisers.
Instead universities now face “multiple crises of transmission, infections, and student welfare” given that the infection rate is highest among people aged 17 to 24.
“There is therefore an urgent need to act quickly and pragmatically to ensure the health, wellbeing, and safety of students and staff, prevent further transmission across campuses to students and staff alike, and quite simply, enable the ‘liveability’ of student life on campus in the coming weeks,” Independent Sage said in a statement.
The group put forward five key recommendations and urged the government to provide the necessary funding to universities:
- Transfer all teaching and learning online by default
- Offer essential in-person teaching only once regular testing of students and staff is in place
- Offer students the choice whether to live in university accommodation or at home to avoid repeated journeys between the two.
- Give students the “the right to return home” at any point during term, following a Covid test, and refund their accommodation fees.
- Offer full support to students to self-isolate and access online learning resources.
Independent Sage also criticised the lack of clear guidance or a funding programme for testing at universities – which they say has resulted in institutions taking different approaches, including outsourcing to the private sector, partnering with local NHS labs or even developing their own testing programmes.
“This array of approaches demonstrates that universities have little faith in NHS Test and Trace to protect their students and staff, and the communities in which they live,” said Sir David King. “The innovative ways in which testing systems have been developed demonstrates what could be achieved if Test and Trace had made maximum use of existing health service and university structures.”
Some universities have already moved towards offering more financial support. Glasgow University announced it is offering all of those students in its residences a four-week rent rebate “in recognition of the difficult circumstances you are living under”. It also promised to address “teething problems” which left some self-isolating students complaining they had not been provided with any meals for two days.