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Universities face mounting pressure to switch to online classes amid Covid-19

By Eleanor Busby

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.”

(PA)