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Labour writes to Universities Minister demanding “credible plan” as universities reopen

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Labour has written to the government demanding that they urgently implement a credible plan to ensure that universities can reopen safely, including action on testing, digital access, and public health measures on campus.

Emma Hardy, Labour’s Shadow Universities Minister, has written to the Department for Education, calling for them to “get a grip before it is too late”, outlining the Party’s calls to improve testing and digital access.

The Party’s call for further action follows the publication of guidance by SAGE that warned that universities could be a site of increased transmission of coronavirus, and the recent surge in confirmed infections is driven by an increase in cases in young people.

Labour has warned that the government has not yet delivered a credible plan that will ensure that the reopening of universities does not lead to a significant spike in coronavirus cases locally and nationally.

In a letter to the Universities Minister, Hardy calls on the government to urgently ensure adequate testing capacity in university communities and explore a programme of mass testing that would include those who do not have symptoms. The letter also calls for steps to ensure that all students can access learning remotely where they need to, and clear national guidance on the use of facemasks on campus to help reduce the spread of the virus.

Commenting, Emma Hardy MP, Labour’s Shadow Universities Minister, said “With only a matter of weeks until campuses reopen, the government must act now to ensure that universities are able to reopen safely. With the number of coronavirus cases rising, the government must get a grip before it is too late.

“Universities and their staff have worked tirelessly to ensure that they can reopen safely, and now the government must do their part to reassure communities and students that there’s the infrastructure in place to support them.”

“After the chaos of recent days, Minsters must ensure adequate testing capacity in university communities, ensure that everyone has the digital access they need for remote learning, and explore the introduction of mass testing for all students.”

The full text of Emma Hardy’s letter:

Dear Michelle,

In the weeks ahead almost 2 million students will begin a new academic year. The majority will be moving from one part of the country to another in the largest internal migration that we will see this year, while those studying at a local university will begin a new daily commute and mix with new arrivals.

I am deeply concerned that this is taking place against the backdrop of rising coronavirus cases, with your Department still unable to outline the concrete measures that it will take in order to reduce the spread of the virus in higher education settings.

SAGE warned on Friday 4 September that the movement and mixing of students that will follow makes “significant outbreaks” of Covid 19 “highly likely”. Infection rates have jumped rapidly in recent days, and while the Health Secretary has said that the rise in infections is largely among young people, this concern has not been matched by a credible plan from the Government.

It is time for the government to outline a set of clear measures that will help to reduce the spread of coronavirus, keep campuses and communities safe, and ensure that students are able to learn remotely where necessary.

First and foremost, we must act to reduce transmission of coronavirus. If SAGE is concerned that the return to universities could lead to an increase in cases, and the Health Secretary believes young people have driven recent spikes in case numbers, then it is time for the government to take immediate action.

What steps has your Department taken to ensure that students are able to get tested when they return to university? What steps have been taken to ensure that there is sufficient testing capacity that the wider communities in which universities operate can also access testing? Will there be additional testing put in place to support members of the staff and student population that face a greater risk from coronavirus?

The chaos of the last few days – which has seen people who are concerned that they have coronavirus directed to travel hundreds of miles just to get tested – will have left confidence in the system utterly shaken. Immediate action is needed to rectify this.

As a minimum, the Government must urgently ensure that all students, staff, and members of the wider community are able to access a test when they need one.

Alongside this, the government must explore a programme of mass testing to include those who do not have symptoms. Mass testing could help to reduce the spread of the virus and build confidence in universities and their communities that students are able to return safely.

With many universities adopting blended or remote learning for a number of courses, and further local restrictions making this more likely, it is more important than ever that every young person has the digital access they need to learn.

What steps has your Department taken to ensure that students have sufficient digital access? In what circumstances would the Department expect universities to move to providing blended or remote learning?

The Office for Students has already found that the majority of students could be negatively affected by a lack of digital access. Without digital access many students, particularly those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, will simply be locked out of their education. This cannot be justified, and your Department must urgently work with universities to ensure that every student can access remote learning.

To push this issue on to individual universities or students would be a dereliction of duty by your Department. You must immediately set out the steps you will take to ensure that no student is locked out of their education this year.

I am concerned that student and staff voices are not being heard because of the refusal to include the National Union of Students and University College Union on the Taskforce and I urge you to reconsider your decision.

Finally, it is essential that university campuses are a safe place to study and work in the months ahead. Your Department and the Office for Students have a key role to play in reducing the transmission of the virus on campus.

What steps have the Department and regulator taken to support universities in reducing the spread of coronavirus?

The government has already acknowledged that masks should be worn in secondary schools when social distancing is not possible, and many individual universities have rightly adopted this approach as well. But once again there has been a lack of national leadership or planning from your Department.

To help reduce the spread of coronavirus in universities, the Office for Students should urgently issue guidance calling for face coverings to be worn in indoor areas on campus, bringing this in line with other parts of our education system.

While universities are autonomous institutions, it is important that your Department provides clear leadership and support on such essential matters of public health. It is time to stop passing the buck to individual universities and to deliver a national plan that ramps up testing, drives down transmission, and allows students to learn while keeping staff, students, and the community safe.

Universities have gone to great lengths to ensure that they can reopen safely, and it is essential that students understand and follow the measures that are put in place. In Scotland new guidance places a clear expectation that noncompliance would be treated seriously. Is your Department or the regulator considering similar steps in England?

Last night the government announced new restrictions on social interactions, but there is still no clarity on guidance for universities. The government must act urgently to provide clarity to students, staff, and university communities on the support they will receive in the weeks ahead.

I hope that you will adopt these proposals, and urgently outline the steps your Department will be taking to achieve these goals.

I look forward to your response.

Yours sincerely,

Emma Hardy MP
Shadow Minister for Universities