On Saturday evening, the University and College Union (UCU) called for an end to in-person teaching nationally in universities following the announcement from the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson that England will enter into a four-week lockdown on Thursday until 2nd December to curb the rise in Coronavirus infections.
From Thursday until 2nd December all restaurants, gyms, non-essential shops and places of worship will close, but schools, colleges and universities can stay open. This will also mean that all venues on campus including the KPA Clubhouse, and the first-floor bars of the SU will have to close in-line with the national Coronavirus guidelines.
In a statement released on Saturday night, the General Secretary of UCU, Jo Grady said “The health and safety of the country is being put at risk because of this government’s insistence that universities must continue with in-person teaching” and went on to say “Ministers must tell universities to move all non-essential in-person teaching online as part of any national lockdown”
In person teaching has already been suspended in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, Manchester and Liverpool in response to a rise in coronavirus cases there following fresher’s week. But there has been no indication yet, that Keele University will suspend in-person teaching entirely. The cabinet office has encouraged universities to continue to follow the guidelines that were published at the start of term.
Last week, Keele UCU’s proposals to give staff the choice of whether to hold in-situ teaching was accepted by the university meaning that it is currently at the discretion of University staff whether they choose to hold in-person teaching or not. This action was taken by Keele University after Keele UCU had reported that members had been feeling an increased level of stress and in-situ teaching had resulted slow and stilted sessions due to Covid-19 regulations.
Universities have come under pressure from students to reduce fees due to the lack of in-person teaching and resources. Following little official support from the government, many students have likened the experience to the Open University; where a Full Time Honours degree will set you back £6,192 a year in comparison to the £9,250 students are currently paying.
In guidance released by the Cabinet Office late on Saturday evening it stated that students “should only return home at the end of term for Christmas.” they also advised that “if you live at university, you must not move back and forward between your permanent home and student home during term time”
This means that the government advice means that students will be isolating in accommodation on and off campus and only able to leave to buy essential goods and attend the 1-2 hours of in person teaching that are currently available on most courses. University students are now expected to follow stay at university even if their university chooses to suspend in-person teaching.
More questions for students will come after the month-long lockdown has ended when regions will be split back into the current tier system depending on the number of cases in each area. The government have not yet published plans on how students will return home if their university is put into a higher tier than their home address or if the lockdown is extended. Current regulations ban travel between areas that are in different tiers. The government have said they “will publish further guidance at the end of term” for students at university.
This week, Newcastle Borough entered tier two meaning that risk from covid-19 was ‘high’ due to the rise in coronavirus cases. This rise in cases across North Staffordshire may push the University to act on Saturday’s announcement from the Prime minister and suspend in-person teaching.
In an Email sent to students following the move to tier two, the Vice Chancellor of Keele University, Professor Trevor McMillan revealed that students living in Barnes X,Y,W and N had been told to get a Covid-19 test by Newcastle Borough Council and currently 118 students are currently self-isolating as well as a further 136 off campus.
University students being statistically less likely to be hospitalised by Coronavirus will no-dought feel as if they have lost out in the past year due to the pandemic. Until the government releases their full guidance at the end of term for universities; it will be both an unusual and uncertain time for many.