Yorkshire students urged to remain resilient during "worrying time" by region's higher education chiefs

Higher education leaders in the region have urged students to remain resilient as coronavirus cases continue to rise and thousands of students are self-isolating as the new term begins, Ruth Dacey reports.

As the majority of students across Yorkshire started term yesterday (28 September) higher education leaders across the region have stressed campuses are as "covid secure" as possible and the university experience is still worth it, despite a "difference experience" this year for new and returning students.

The call of reassurance comes as Labour have said pausing the return of universities should be considered, rather than risk further Covid outbreaks and self-isolation for students.

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University of Leeds confirms six coronavirus cases among staff and students
Pictured, students from Glasgow University look out of the windows of the student accommodation at Murano Street student village on September 28, 2020 in Glasgow, Scotland. Photo credit: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Shadow education secretary Kate Green said the start of term should be delayed while an "effective, efficient testing system" is put in place.

And in a letter to Boris Johnson, the University and College Union (UCU), accused some institutions of adopting a "stubborn position" over requiring in-person teaching because they depended on rent from student accommodation.

The union's comments come as thousands of students self-isolate following a surge in cases at universities including Manchester Metropolitan and Glasgow.

In response Dr Peter O’Brien, the executive director of Yorkshire Universities, a group representing 12 institutions in the region, told The Yorkshire Post: "There is diversity within the higher education sector there are different types of universities, in different settings... we need to at times not treat every university as being the same.

Executive director of Yorkshire Universities, Dr Peter O'Brien. Photo: Submitted

"I would caution treating all universities the same."

He added: "Universities across Yorkshire have tried to make sure campuses are as covid secure as possible - there is a whole series of measures that are taking place around making sure it’s safe for students and staff to be on campus."

There are no official figures on university Covid outbreaks from the government, the Office for Students or Universities UK - but according to university statements and local reports this month, at least 25 institutions have seen confirmed coronavirus cases.

In Yorkshire confirmed cases reported are six cases confirmed at the University of Leeds (as of 24 September).

The University of Leeds.

A spokesman, from the University of Leeds, said: "Since the start of September the University has been made aware of six positive tests for covid-19 among our students and staff - these cases are not connected to each other."

And one case at the University of Hull. A spokeswoman, from the University of Hull, said: "We can confirm one of our students has tested positive for COVID-19... We would like to reassure everyone that the matter is being handled in accordance with the very latest guidance."

While nationally at Manchester Metropolitan University - roughly 1,700 students have been told to isolate for a fortnight after 127 tested positive for the virus. And At the University of Essex a cluster of cases has been linked to sports teams.

In Scotland at Glasgow University - 600 students were told to self-isolate after 172 tested positive and in Ireland at Queen's University Belfast - some students have been told to self-isolate after a "small number" tested positive.

Dr O’Brien said: "This is a health situation - this is a health challenge that we face, and people’s health has to be paramount. And I know that universities in Yorkshire would put students health and staff health at the forefront of their minds and their actions.

"You’ve got these settings on campuses - inevitably the virus is increasing at the moment - you’re going to see a rise in cases but by following the guidance, understanding there are clear plans... I hope that will provide reassurance for students, who are so important to the region and have so much to contribute and will contribute in the recovery and the future."

Margaret A House OBE, Vice-Chancellor, from Leeds Trinity University, where there has been no positive cases reported, added: "We know this is a worrying time for new and returning students, so we are doing everything we can to keep them informed, take care of them, and provide wellbeing and mental health support.

"The University has a dedicated mental health/well-being team which has built a comprehensive support and resilience programme to support our students."

In response to fees still topping £9,250 a year, and some students questioning whether the university experience is still worth it, Dr O'Brien stressed Yorkshire’s universities and students will be pivotal to the recovery of the region and the future of the economy.

He said: "Going to university at any time is a fantastic experience and it is important for students individually bit also for our region and for our country in terms of what they will contribute towards our society and our economy in so many different ways.

"It’s going to be different this year - there is no doubt about it- because we are in the midst of a global pandemic and major public health economic crisis but I would say that I know universities have invested a lot of resource are doing their absolute upmost to make sure the online experience that students will get in terms of instigating and installing towns to new technologies will mean that teaching and learning experience will be the best it can possibly be.

"We are going to need more people with higher level skills in terms of turning this economy around and turning the region around. And the university and these students will play such a important role in that."

He added: "But at the moment we have just got to follow these guidelines because this is an unprecedented situation that we are facing and their safety and the safety of their friends and their families and the communities in which they are in are so important."

For students in England, the Prime Minister's spokesman said yesterday (28 September) that students should follow health advice just like wider public.

If they have tested positive or have symptoms they do need to self isolate - and should follow any local restrictions in place, said the spokesman.

But it was expected that all students would be able to return home at Christmas, said the PM's spokesman, after suggestions that students might have to remain in their student accommodation.

Universities reaction across Yorkshire as semester starts

A spokeswoman at the University of Hull, where there has been one positive test for a student, said: "The University swiftly commenced a Track and Trace procedure. Those who have been in direct contact with the student have been notified, and are currently self-isolating as a precaution, in line with Government guidance.

"Thorough cleaning of relevant areas has also taken place, in addition to the University’s existing COVID-19 safety measures.

"As always, the safety and wellbeing of students, staff and the wider community is our main priority. We would like to reassure everyone that the matter is being handled in accordance with the very latest guidance."

"Our experience is that the vast majority of our students have been respectful of the measures we have in place, and understand their importance to keep both themselves and their friends safe."

Meanwhile Margaret A House OBE, Vice-Chancellor, from Leeds Trinity University said: "The University does not have any positive COVID-19 cases on campus at present but we are supporting a small number of individual resident students who have been required to isolate or quarantine on campus and have plans in place to support groups of students should the need arise."

She added: "We have been communicating with both new and returning students in recent months to explain the blended approach to teaching and learning and to outline the safety measures and procedures which have been put in place on campus.

"Students in University accommodation are already living in household groups, and are required to socialise only within their household groups in their halls of residence. Social responsibility is intrinsic to the ethos of Leeds Trinity and we expect our students and staff to play their part in protecting their families, friends and other community members as well as themselves."

While in South Yorkshire a spokesperson for Sheffield Hallam University said: "We have done all we can to balance our responsibilities to our students, to our staff and to our community. Our extensive preparations have made face-to-face teaching possible and some initial teaching has got underway this week.

"We have been clear with our students that we want them to enjoy their university experience even in these very different circumstances but that we expect them to do so responsibly and considerately. It is everyone’s responsibility to help stop the spread of the virus. We expect that the overwhelming majority of students will follow the rules and take their safety seriously, as well as that of our wider community.

"In cases where that does not happen, we want to remind students of their responsibilities and we won’t rule out taking firm action against any students who fail to act in accordance with the law on social gatherings."

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