The Prime Minister has been urged to ensure online tuition at universities “becomes the norm”, amid concern over the impact of Covid-19 lockdowns on students.
In a letter to Boris Johnson, the University and College Union (UCU), accused some institutions of adopting a “stubborn position” over requiring in-person teaching because they depended on rent from student accommodation.
The union’s comments come as thousands of students self-isolate following a surge in cases at universities including Glasgow, Manchester Metropolitan and Edinburgh Napier.
According to university statements and local reports this month, at least 25 institutions have seen confirmed coronavirus cases.
Meanwhile, Larissa Kennedy, president of the National Union of Students (NUS), claimed that those self-isolating were being “trapped” in “disgusting conditions” and missing out on food deliveries.
In her letter to Mr Johnson, Jo Grady, UCU general secretary, said the union which represents academics and university staff was “not prepared to take chances with the health of students, our members and the communities they serve”.
“It is clear that remote learning should be the default for campus life while we are in this precarious position with the virus,” she said.
“However, what we are seeing on the ground is university employers hiding behind the Government’s current sectoral guidance, with all the ambiguities associated with the term ‘blended learning’.
She added: “Whilst other sectors are being encouraged by the Government to work from home to help control the spread of the virus, universities are requiring staff to travel across their local regions to work on-site and in-person with any number of students.
“Considering the known risks associated with in-person teaching and students living in close quarters, why did the Government not insist on minimising in-person teaching and students travelling to universities?
“We have concerns that universities are taking this stubborn position because they depend on rents from student accommodation – and because your own Government refuses to step in and underwrite universities’ lost income for the duration of the pandemic to ensure they are not negatively impacted and jobs are not lost.”
The Government is under pressure to guarantee young people are not confined to their halls of residence over the Christmas period because of Covid-19 outbreaks on campuses.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said on Monday that all students were expected to be able to go home at Christmas, while noting they were subject to the same rules as the wider population in the areas where they live.
Ms Grady said students should be allowed to leave their accommodation and return home “without fear of financial penalty”.
“We cannot have students forced to quarantine in halls of residence with no familiar support network, or staff forced to carry out work on site that could be conducted more safely from home,” she said.
Speaking earlier to Good Morning Britain about the conditions some students faced, Ms Kennedy said: “I’m hearing from some students across the country where there are security guards outside of these blocks where students are being kept, stopping people from leaving, coming and going, where students are being discouraged from getting deliveries and told by the university that they’ll deliver food, and that delivery has not arrived, and so they’ve gone for the day without food.
“I’ve heard from other students who, they’ve turned up with an amount of toilet roll, told with no notice that they’re going to be locked down and wondering where the next roll of toilet roll is coming from.
“It just feels like these are disgusting conditions for students to have been trapped in.”
Ms Kennedy said people should follow public health guidance but questioned the legality of keeping students “cooped up in that way without that access to the things that they need”.
Manchester Metropolitan University said it could not stop students under Covid-19 lockdown leaving their accommodation, but it expected them to follow self-isolation guidance.
On Sunday it said foundation year and first-year students will switch to online learning for the next 14 days.
Under updated guidance in Scotland, students have been told they can return home from university accommodation on a long-term basis, as long as they follow rules on self-isolating.
Meanwhile, Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the Office for Students (OfS), the higher education regulator in England, said it would investigate if universities “have not taken all reasonable steps to protect standards or where quality is slipping for groups of students”.
She argued institutions must provide clarity to students over teaching conditions and how these will be affected if they go into self-isolation, as well as ensuring they could access food and essential provisions.
“We will be following up with individual universities and colleges where we have concerns about the arrangements they are making for teaching and academic support,” Ms Dandridge said.
She said students had “rights as consumers” and could raise complaints with their university, the Office of the Independent Adjudicator and OfS itself.
Commenting on whether universities could make partial tuition fee refunds, she added: “We would expect a university to consider the circumstances for each student rather than to adopt a blanket policy that refunds are not available.”