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University students should be allowed to return home from campus now, unions say

By Eleanor Busby, PA Education Correspondent

Students should be allowed to return home from university and study online if they wish to do so, unions representing academics and students say.

The National Union of Students (NUS) and the University and College Union (UCU) have called for urgent action from the UK Government as coronavirus outbreaks have hit university campuses across the UK.

Larissa Kennedy, NUS president, said students have been left “trapped in halls” and are struggling to access food and wellbeing resources, which she warned is needlessly risking lives.

It comes after Boris Johnson said students will be able to go home for Christmas – despite Covid-19 cases rising “quite rapidly” among young people.

Speaking in the Commons on Tuesday, Gavin Williamson suggested a shift to online learning could be applied in “specific cases” to enable students to safely return home at the end of term to be with their families over the festive period.

But the education unions are calling for a move to online learning wherever possible – and they say students should be given a safe way to leave campus now if they want to.

Students should not face any financial detriment for giving up accommodation, or choosing to defer or leave university, they say.

Ms Kennedy said: “Over the past few months, students have repeatedly been encouraged to move, ensuring that universities and accommodation companies could collect tuition fees and rent whilst leaving thousands of students trapped in halls, with many struggling to access food, basic amenities and wellbeing resources.”

“The ongoing uncertainty students face is exacerbating poor mental health, debt and needlessly puts lives at risk. Put simply – students deserve better.”

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer called for more mental health aid for students caught up in the pandemic.

He used a “Call Keir” Zoom question-and-answer session on Thursday with selected students and parents to call for more help to be given to young people facing restrictions on campuses and halls of residence.

During the call, Eugene Ritchie, a student at Glasgow University told Sir Keir: “I’m in a flat of 12 and all of us tested positive. All 12. Luckily, no-one’s had it too severely.”

Leeds University student Joe Haslam said more than 1,000 students lived in student accommodation at Central Village and currently the whole block was using one lift. He said: “There’s normally two, but one’s out of order at the moment.”

Sir Keir said: “With young people coming together in their accommodation area in groups of four, or six, or sometimes 12, and the almost inevitability because of shared accommodation that once somebody has got Covid-19 everybody is going to be getting it.”

“And I’m very struck by the fact that at least two people came on and said that basically everybody in their flat or accommodation has now got Covid. And they have got no alternative but to share facilities.”

Jo Grady, general secretary of the UCU, said: “Ministers need to act now and tell universities to halt in-person teaching where possible and move the majority of work online, in line with other workplaces.”

“They also have to guarantee funding for universities to safeguard institutions’ finances and protect jobs.”

“If the Government had followed our advice and made that clear financial commitment, universities could have spent the summer studying the science, working on a consensus about when to restart and, crucially, prepare properly for this term.”

The joint statement from the two unions says: “We recognise the need to keep universities open, but campus life needs a radical overhaul to keep us all safe and limit in-person contact.”

“Those currently working and studying in our universities need a national strategy that fully recognises this risk, moves teaching online for the duration of this term, and ensures students can safely return home where possible.”

It adds: “Students must not be forced to quarantine in halls of residence with no familiar support network, pastoral care and more serious restrictions than the rest of society.”

“Staff must not be forced to carry out work on site that could be conducted more safely from home. Students must be allowed to safely return home if they wish to, without fear of financial penalty for leaving their student accommodation.”

A Universities UK (UUK) spokesman said: “Most universities are offering some in-person teaching, support, and social activities where these can be provided in a physically distanced way, alongside online alternatives to ensure that students are supported and engaged.”

“Where it is necessary for students to self-isolate, universities are taking care of both their physical and emotional well-being, including access to testing and healthcare, mental health support, continuing learning online, safe social interaction, food deliveries, laundry, and financial support.”

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