Universities are facing growing pressure to move lessons online amid thousands of Covid-19 cases on campuses across the UK.
The University and College Union (UCU) has launched a new petition demanding that the Government switches university classes from face-to-face to online immediately “where possible”.
It comes after figures, which were collated by the union over the past few weeks, suggest there have been more than 20,000 coronavirus cases at higher education providers since the start of term.
The union, which represents university and college staff, is calling on the Government to provide more funding to protect students and staff from the financial and mental health impact of the pandemic.
Jo Grady, general secretary of the UCU, said: “We have now seen over 20,000 cases of Covid at universities since the start of term.
But even as much of the UK is moving into stricter measures to contain the pandemic, in-person activities are continuing on campus causing infections to rise.
“We repeatedly warned that the mass migration of students around the country would cause a public health disaster but our pleas fell on deaf ears.”
It comes after a Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) document, dated September 21, suggested moving all college and university teaching online unless face-to-face teaching was “essential”.
But addressing the Commons on Monday, universities minister Michelle Donelan said the Government did not believe it would be right to put the lives and “the academic journeys of students on hold”.
Three universities in Liverpool, which has been placed in Tier 3, have already halted most of their in-person classes amid a rise in coronavirus cases.
Other universities teaching the majority of classes online include Northumbria, Newcastle, Sheffield, Manchester and Manchester Metropolitan where cases on campus were high.
But a number of institutions, including Durham University where 958 students have tested positive for coronavirus in the past week, are continuing a blended approach of face-to-face and online lessons.
Dr Grady added: “The Government’s failure to stand behind the sector in this time of crisis has meant institutions have been encouraged to prioritise student recruitment over health and safety, with staff and students now paying the price.
“We are urging everyone to sign our petition so the Government understands that it needs to move learning online now, and provide additional funding to support flexibility for students, stability for the sector and safety for all.”
A National Union of Students spokesperson said: “We support the call for learning to be moved online in most cases, where accessible.
“However, it is important to consider those students who need access to facilities such as labs or studios, as well as disabled students who cannot easily access their education in a digital format.
“We encourage online teaching wherever possible to prioritise space on campus for students taking practical and face-to-face courses.
“The top priority right now is the health and safety of students, therefore we should see on-campus learning in place only when it is completely safe to do so.”
A Universities UK spokeswoman said: “Wide-ranging safety measures are in place to reduce risks on campuses, with universities continuing to strive to deliver an engaging learning experience to ensure that students – who have faced significant disruption during this pandemic – can continue with their education.”
She added: “There are some subjects – essential to the UK’s post-Covid-19 recovery – where some element of in-person teaching is essential for students to meet learning outcomes, including medicine, nursing and teaching courses.”
A Department for Education (DfE) spokeswoman said: “We understand this has been a very difficult time for students and staff, and it is crucial for students’ wellbeing and education to be able to go to university and carry on with their lives, which is why we have supported universities to provide a blend of online and in-person learning in a Covid-secure way this term.
“Universities are prepared for local outbreaks and we have worked with them to help draw up plans for measures in the event of positive cases on campus, or a rise in cases locally.
“Universities are also working closely with local authorities and public health officials to monitor cases, and a number of universities have increased their online teaching in response to local outbreaks.”