The government has – for the first time since the pandemic began – published data covering reported cases of Covid-19 infections in higher education institutions.
Figures compiled for the Department for Education (DfE) show there were 76,546 confirmed positive Covid cases recorded in the higher education sector between 1 August 2020 to 7 April 2021: 67,571 were among the student population and 8,975 among staff.
The DfE accepts these figures are not complete – representing only those cases confirmed by a positive result to a Covid test and reported to a university. Before December 2020, mass testing was not available to HE students. Not every HE provider in the UK submitted figures to the report, so the figures are not representative of the whole sector. The likely total infections is likely to be higher.
Following instruction from the DfE, the Office for Students (OfS) launched a reporting tool on 20 October for English HE registered providers to record new Covid cases and those confirmed since 1 August.
Just over nine in 10 (91%) of the 237 HEPs provided at least one response to the survey – although weekly response rates never exceeded 81% of registered providers.
Although the total figure covers cases between August to October 2020 – the period when students returned to campuses – the DfE has only published segmented weekly data from 29 October 2020 due to “quality issues”.
In the seven days to 4 November, more than 4,000 new Covid cases were reported to the OfS. An estimated 19,600 students were self-isolating in England in the week to the 4 November, based on the responses of 75 universities and HEIs.
The data shows that the rate of new Covid cases declined week-on-week over November, and by 2 December, when the student Christmas travel window opened, there were over 1,000 new cases confirmed across the sector.
There was a fresh surge in cases confirmed to the OfS in the first fortnight of the new year when students began to return to campus.
Provider response rates were much lower during these two weeks, ranging between 47% and 67% of OfS registrants, so the surge is likely downplayed in these official statistics. New cases decreased after January in line with the introduction of nationwide lockdown restrictions. In the week to 7 April, 71 confirmed student and 21 confirmed staff cases were reported to the OfS.
During the Autumn term, the DfE announced four-tiered restrictions for universities. If placed in tier 1, universities were to cancel all in-person teaching. Those in tier 4 were permitted to teach in-person in a ‘blend’ with online tuition. Throughout the Autumn term between 50% and 65% of providers that were open to students were placed in tier 4 by the DfE.