Students are role models, not scapegoats, says Portsmouth v-c

Professor Graham Galbraith says there is no evidence of students spreading Covid-19 virus, and that politicians and communities should view them accordingly

The vice-chancellor of the University of Portsmouth has called on the nation to stop assuming students are spreading Covid-19. 

In a blog for the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) website, Professor Graham Galbraith points out that most universities who have been testing students as part of government-led pre-Christmas mass testing have seen very few positive results.

Last week, only 0.2% of the several thousand University of Portsmouth students tested for Covid-19 – by nurses rather than volunteers – received a positive result.

The low levels of student infection at the end of term, says Professor Galbraith, are inconsistent with the warnings in a SAGE report in September, in which the advisory body said universities “may act as amplifiers” of the virus at the end of the autumn term, and suggested “large outbreaks are possible, peaking during November or later” posing a risk of students spreading infection when they travel home.

There is no evidence of students being an ongoing source of infection spread in Portsmouth. I suspect many other universities will be able to tell a similar story – Professor Graham Galbraith

The concern over student outbreaks and their impact on public health over the Christmas and New Year period was echoed by many, both within and outside the higher education sector, including the University and College Union (UCU).

In September, 50 UK psychologists, led by the University of Derby’s Dr Frances Maratos wrote to health secretary Matt Hancock calling for the “shaming and blaming” of students over Covid-19 transmission to stop.

Professor Galbraith criticised “the conventional wisdom, sometimes based on little more than prejudice… that students are causing infection rate increases in their towns and cities”.

University of Portsmouth researchers have plotted the infection numbers in Portsmouth using their own and publicly available data, showing there is no evidence that the ongoing rise in infections in the city can be blamed on students.

“It is clear that student infections up until about 8-10 October correlated with the trend of the City population,” says Professor Galbraith, adding that further research is underway to determine which strand of Covid students at Portsmouth caught, and thereby infer who they caught it from.

“After about 10 October, though, any relationship between total City infections and student infections ends. So, even if the city-wide rise in infections was caused by students, it was soon brought under control.

“Why? We believe the answer is our own testing along with effective trace and support measures for isolating students. Of course, it remains possible that students continued to infect the wider population but, if so, it is mysterious how they managed to do this without infecting each other.

“The graph shows that there is no evidence of students being an ongoing source of infection spread in Portsmouth. I suspect many other universities will be able to tell a similar story.”

Perhaps we should see students as role models, not scapegoats – Professor Graham Galbraith

The vice-chancellor went on to congratulate students at the University of Portsmouth for their responsible attitude and said the “overwhelming majority of students are not the stereotypes of tabloid headlines. Perhaps we should see students as role models, not scapegoats.”

Professor Galbraith also urged the nation to change its “mindset” regarding students and Covid-19, warning people not to “become blind to their own role in spreading the virus” during a lockdown-free Christmas and New Year.

He also suggested regular testing and support for isolating students was a more effective way to reduce the spread of the virus than staggered departures from, and returns to, university.

“It has been a hard year for students,” Professor Galbraith concluded. “The least we owe to them is for politicians, communities – indeed all of us – to be guided by the evidence when deciding how they are viewed and treated in one of the worst peace-time crises this country has ever experienced.”


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