Complete Shutdown of UK Universities due to COVID-19 ‘Impossible’

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Vice-chancellors of UK universities have said to the government they are not able to completely shut down if the coronavirus outbreak worsens. This is due to the thousands of students who would be left with nowhere to go.

The Office for Students (OfS), the higher education regulator for England requested information from all universities on Monday 9th March.

It asked for information regarding the number of confirmed and suspected cases of the coronavirus on campus, as well as details on how each institution is responding to these cases. 

We understand that any decisions regarding instructions for universities to close would be taken by the Department for Education (DfE). A spokesperson for the OfS said universities should “continue to follow advice from DfE and Public Health England.” However, vice-chancellors cautioned that the makeup of universities made their complete shutdown impossible.

Prof Steve West, the vice-chancellor of the University of the West of England (UWE) in Bristol, said: “My bottom line back to government has been that they can’t treat universities like big schools because we aren’t. I’ve got 4,500 students living on campus: some of them are care leavers or estranged from their families and many are international students. We can’t just shut down as they would have nowhere to go.”

The vice-chancellor of a Russell Group university, who asked not to be named, agreed, saying: “We couldn’t fully close. What do you do with thousands of international students who can’t go home?” The vice-chancellor also stated that their university would be sure to provide free accommodation for international students who were stranded, even if the government told them to shut.

Oxford University said it would remain open despite a second student testing positive for coronavirus. In a statement it said: “Public Health England has advised the university that the risk to other students and staff is very low and that university and college activities can continue as normal.”

Simon Marginson, a professor of higher education at Oxford, said the volume of people in universities represented a real challenge to containment: “Only transport and inner urban streets clearly exceed the level of people-traffic that we can see in large universities. The end of term cannot come too soon.”

University of the West of England, in Bristol, has set up an emergency helpline for concerned students and parents. West said: “We would operate something like a Christmas shutdown. The things you can shut down you do, such as lectures and sports. But you also have to provide vital support services for the students still here, including security, catering, wellbeing support and emergency phone lines.”

He added that universities may need to mobilise students who are training as nurses, doctors and other health professionals to help bolster overstretched NHS services. “We need the flexibility to do that, and to support those students,” said West.

Harvard University in the US told students on Tuesday that they must move out of their houses and student residences by no later than Sunday and that all classes would be conducted online after the spring holiday, in an attempt to contain the spread of the infection. No cases have yet been detected at the university at the time of writing.