As someone used to asking the questions, it was unnerving to be put on the spot and quizzed by BBC TV News on Bank Holiday Sunday on whether and how university campuses could safely reopen after the long coronavirus lockdown

I’ve written tens of thousands of words since COVID-19 turned out world upside down and transformed us almost overnight into ‘Stay Home’ and ‘Self-isolation’ converts – even in the UK, where Prime Minister Boris Johnson dithered and maybe missed the chance to nip the spread of the virus in the bud.

Now, as we step out of the darkness into who-knows-what with the reopening of schools, colleges and universities, whose advice should be heed?

The Johnson Conservative government has clearly switched gear from ‘Save the NHS’ to “Save the economy” and after bribing millions into pubs and restaurants with the taxpayer-funded ‘Eat out to Help Out’ subsidies. Its new message for the autumn seems to be: ‘Stay alert – but get back to the workplace!’ 

However, Britain’s main academic teaching union, the University and College Union, or UCU, is pretty clear on reopening university campuses, with its leader Dr Jo Grady (pictured) warning that having tens of thousands of students heading into cities across the UK “risks doing untold damage to people’s health and exacerbating the worst public health crisis of our lifetimes”.

The media seized on her claim that universities risked becoming the “care homes of the second wave” of the virus. 

Online teaching as default mode

But the UCU seems to be talking sense with the call for regular testing of staff and students and online teaching and social activities to be the default mode – at least until the end of 2020 – together with face masks to be worn in indoor spaces, quarantine measures and the kinds of health precautions we should expect of any sensible employer in these difficult times.

The union represents 120,000 university staff and is following guidance from the independent SAGE group of scientists, which held a Zoom meeting (pictured) I reported on for University World News.

The scientists want online teaching to be the ‘default option’ to minimise the danger of a second wave of COVID-19 getting out of hand as winter approaches.

Quarantine arrangements

And in answer to my question about international students arriving from corona hotspots, Independent SAGE urged universities to provide “comprehensive wrap-around support” to self-isolating students.

That should include meeting international students at airports and providing free meals and accommodation for early arrivals, plus IT support during quarantine, and perhaps even an online student ‘buddy system’ to avoid the foreign students feeling totally alone.

Universities UK, which represents the vice-chancellors, agrees with much Independent SAGE recommends and has just published its own Self-isolation for Students Arriving in the UK advice

But it still hopes to see some ‘in-person’ teaching and what they call “different approaches” to ensure safe social activities.

The big question for UK universities is what will students think of being taught remotely and enduring most social interaction online? After all they are paying over £9,000 if they are from the UK or EU and more than double that figure if they are ‘international’ students.

Will students feel short changed just studying online?

And why risk travelling from India, China or wherever to sit in a British university dorm and be taught by a lecturer via Zoom and only chat to fellow classmates over social media at the start of term?

What should universities do?

So, what do I think universities should do?

Campuses, like schools, can’t stay closed forever.

And if I was 18 or 19 and wanted to cross the country, or perhaps the world, to study a specific subject at a particular British university, I’d probably still do it. But I’m older, and perhaps wiser, and I do worry about the risks, particularly to older staff working in schools and universities.

Students, too, are aware as Larissa Kennedy, President of the National Union of Students, told the Independent SAGE Zoom meeting. Their survey of students showed about a third of respondents said they would not feel safe about face-to-face teaching in September, including two-fifths of international students.

Larissa Kennedy, President of the NUS

This dropped to 13% for January 2021. Nine out of ten respondents said they would feel safe if they were taught exclusively online, she said.

So, perhaps the UCU and the Independent SAGE scientists are right to say it is too early for any face-to-face teaching, apart from essential lab-work on science or medical courses.

What about the social question?

But that still doesn’t solve the social question. Students don’t just go to the university to attend lectures.

If you are 18 or 19 and have just left home for the first time, you probably want to enjoy the freedom that brings, and at least make new friends and have a good time.

But therein lies the biggest risk. We’ve already seen party cities like Barcelona in northern Spain have major spikes in the coronavirus, mainly due to younger people socialising, and the reason the UK government introduced sudden quarantine restrictions for countries where infection rates starting to soar was to prevent travellers spreading COVID-19 after holidaying abroad.

Lesson from America

The lesson from America shows the need for caution, with universities like North Carolina and University of Notre Dame being forced to shut down on-campus teaching soon after students returned. In at least one case, this was due to lack of infection control at social events.

While lecturers may wear masks and visors in classrooms and students’ facemasks in the corridors and communal areas, we all know what happens when people relax and maybe have a drink or three. The mask easily falls under the nose of even chin and the 1 or 2 metre social distancing disappears.

So, everyone needs to be sensible and students and staff should be involved in drawing up safe conduct charters with management, especially to cover the Freshers’ Flu season at the start of the new term and or we could see a return to the big lockdown.

Key messages from Independent SAGE

Will international students still come?

Some universities like Oslo Met in Norway opened at the start of August and had to decide early about what to do about international students. They decided to ‘revoke admission’ to non-EU students on their international master’s degree programmes taught in English and cancel all inbound and outbound student exchanges for the autumn semester to minimise the risk of spreading the virus from different countries.

But Norwegian universities offer free tuition and don’t rely on foreign students paying hefty tuition to subsidise their research as universities like Manchester do. Their vice-chancellor Professor Nancy Rothwell warned staff in a message on July 2 they could lose half their international students as bookings for residence were “well below expectations” despite acceptances from international students holding up.

So, will international students find a way round the travel restrictions and make the effort to come to universities they have long dreamed of studying at? We won’t know for sure until the academic year really gets under way.

But, UK students overcame the debacle over A-level results and most of them joined a mass scramble to get into their first, or second, university of choice.

International study abroad expert Louise Nicol told me from Malaysia that she knows many Malaysian students who have definitely booked flights to come to the UK in September. Research from organisations like the British Council also shows great demand from Indian students in studying in the UK.

But, what about the biggest overseas market of all? Will Chinese students still come in the vast numbers attracted to British universities in recent years? We’ll find out in a few weeks!

  • You can watch a recording of the Independent SAGE Zoom meeting on YouTube.

Main image: Dr Jo Grady, leader of the University and College Union (UCU)

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