At least three uk universities imposed fresh coronavirus restrictions on monday, forcing thousands of students to self-isolate as cases soar on campuses.
The university of exeter asked all students to avoid meeting indoors with anyone who was not part of their household for two weeks, while the university of aberystwyth in wales announced that all in-person teaching would be suspended temporarily.
Queens in belfast, one of dozens of universities to report coronavirus cases on campus, said students living in university accommodation would be self-isolating after a small number of positive tests.
The new measures came after 1,700 students at manchester metropolitan university were forced to isolate after a coronavirus outbreak in halls of residence. in scotland, 600 and 500 students were locked down at glasgow and abertay universities.
The rising number of cases and increasingly restrictive measures have put universities on a potential collision course with academics and students, who say a lack of planning has left students in danger and struggling to learn.
The university and college union, which represents staff, on monday wrote to the prime minister to demand that all teaching be moved online and that students be allowed to return home without facing financial penalties.
We cannot have students forced to quarantine in halls of residence with no familiar support network, or staff forced to carry out work on site that could be conducted more safely from home, said jo grady, the ucus general secretary.
The national union of students on sunday warned that more upheaval would be inevitable in the coming weeks and said students should receive rent rebates and have tuition fees reimbursed if their learning was seriously impacted.
But despite the rising number of coronavirus cases, the majority of universities insisted they would press ahead with plans for blended learning.
The russell group, which represents 24 of the uks oldest universities, said it was working with the government on a pragmatic approach that kept campuses open and allowed students to benefit from a blended programme of in-person and online teaching. universities uk, the sector-wide body, said some in-person teaching, support and social activities were being offered by most universities.
Greg walker, the chief executive of millionplus which represents post-92 universities, said institutions were working closely with local public health teams and had carefully prepared outbreak plans that set out when teaching would move online.
The blended model of learning planned by universities has commenced and will continue unless any circumstances or advice requires a change in approach, he said.
At manchester metropolitan university administrators on monday night offeredstudentsisolating in halls a rent rebate and 50 toward grocery shopping, a similar arrangement to that given to students at glasgow last week.
University leaders acknowledged they were concerned at the possibility students could demand fee or rent refunds.
At sheffield hallam university, where a limited amount of on-campus teaching began on monday, bob kerslake, chair of the board of governors, said a mixture of online and face-to-face teaching enabled undergraduates to get a good experience. we should try very hard to make this mixed model work, he said.
Lord kerslake added that if a major surge of cases made teaching almost impossible, then rebates could be an option but it should be left to individual institutions. i would be resistant to some national imposition of a policy, he said. there is not the headroom to make big discounts. if it happened the government would have to put funds in for that.
Universities minister michelle donelan said: we understand this is a very difficult time for students, which is why their safety and wellbeing has always been my top priority.
From the start of the pandemic, we have been clear that we expect universities to continue to deliver a high-quality academic experience for all students,and the government has worked closely with the sector through the higher education taskforce to ensure they are providing online and in-person learning to limit disruption to tuition.