Majority fear local lockdown when students return – UCU survey

The poll suggests nearly three in five residents in English university towns fear the return of students will cause a surge in Covid cases

The majority of residents in English university towns and cities fear students’ return to campus will precipitate local lockdowns, a survey for the University and College Union (UCU) suggests. 

Survation polled 1,012 adults resident in 25 cities with large student populations on behalf of UCU, as universities prepare to re-open doors to learners in the coming days. Nearly three in five (57%) fear a lockdown in their area as a result of a local outbreak caused by students returning to campus; of those, 48% said they would blame the government, 23% the students and 7% the universities. 

The union is lobbying universities to terminate face-to-face teaching and conduct all teaching and learning online: the survey suggests 50% of people agree, compared to 35% who support universities’ efforts to return to face-to-face learning. Nearly three in five (57%) do not have confidence that local track and trace systems can control a Covid outbreak. 

Without a nationally coordinated comprehensive testing system in place, universities and colleges simply will not be able to cope with outbreaks or potential outbreaks – Jo Grady, UCU

Dr Jo Grady, the union’s general secretary, said: “Vice-chancellors are in denial and creating hygiene theatre to pretend institutions are safe. Government and universities have to stop selling the lie to students that they can have a full university experience in the current crisis.

“The public are rightly concerned about the impact of tens of thousands students moving across the country to their universities. People do not want to see local outbreaks on their doorstep. For all the government’s attempts to blame anyone but themselves for the crisis, large swathes of the public are not being fooled.

“With the Test and Trace system in England at breaking point it is no wonder that the public do not have confidence in the system or this government. Without a nationally coordinated comprehensive testing system in place, universities and colleges simply will not be able to cope with outbreaks or potential outbreaks.”

Last week Dr Grady threatened to “name and shame” universities that do not take sufficient care of staff health and safety. Dr Grady called on members to report universities to UCU, via a new online whistleblower system set up by the union, if they have concerns about their employer – said also she would back members in pursuing industrial action if the staff felt Covid precautions were insufficient. 

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “The safety of university students, staff and local residents is our top priority, and every effort is being made by the government and universities to ensure that students return to campus as safely and sensibly as possible.

“We have already seen universities put in place a range of protective measures, such as limiting travel into campus, staggering class times over extended days, and reinforcing hand hygiene. Our updated higher education guidance includes advice on what a provider should do in the event of a local lockdown, track and trace procedures, the creation of new households in student accommodation and reflects the latest social gathering restrictions.

“Opening universities is a part of the prime minister’s cautious roadmap, and it is important that we continue to open education settings wherever it is safe to do so. We support face-to-face teaching only where possible and if safety guidelines are followed, but know that high quality online teaching can also be delivered if necessary.”

Survation interviewed residents last weekend, aged over 18, in Birmingham, Bolton, Bournemouth, Bradford, Brighton, Bristol, Coventry, Derby, Hull, Leeds, Leicester, Liverpool, London, Luton, Manchester, Newcastle, Northampton, Nottingham, Plymouth, Portsmouth, Reading, Sheffield, Southampton, Stoke and Wolverhampton.

Read more: UCL to offer staff and students Covid tests when term resumes

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