This statement represents the considered view of Independent SAGE. We welcome additional evidence and views that might enable us to improve upon it.
Independent SAGE has, since its first consultation on Universities (21st August 2020), expressed concern about the significant risk of COVID-19 outbreaks as the Autumn term starts across the UK.
Since then, and in the context of a rapid increase in cases across the UK population, new local lockdown and other measures (e.g., “Rule of Six”), the HE sector has already seen multiple and increasing outbreaks across university campuses, starting with Scottish universities as their terms started, and across other cities in the UK. The media reports a rapidly deteriorating situation as universities attempt to manage the multiple crises of transmission, infections, and student welfare.
There is, therefore, an urgent need, as of 28th September, to act quickly and pragmatically to 1) ensure the needs, health, wellbeing, and safety of students and staff; 2) prevent further transmission across campuses to students and staff alike, and, 3) quite simply, enable the ‘liveability’ of student life on campus in the coming weeks. Thus, Independent SAGE recommends that universities immediately implement these five key recommendations:
- Transfer all teaching and learning online by default.
- Make essential in-person teaching and learning (e.g., components of laboratory or practice-based courses) contingent on the regular testing of students and staff, with a ‘dashboard’ approach as adopted by US Colleges, and with stringent adherence to face coverings, handwashing, physical distancing, and ventilation mitigations.
- Offer students the choice whether to live on campus / in their university accommodation or at home elsewhere (e.g., with parents and caregivers) and review at the end of the calendar year (i.e., December), and avoid numerous journeys between home and university.
- Ensure that students who choose to remain at university while learning online maintain the right to return home for the rest of the term at any point, with accommodation fees refunded, and with testing before doing so.
- Ensure full and generous support to students both to self-isolate and to access online learning resources, including practical needs (e.g., food, laundry), learning (e.g., IT, connectivity), and social and emotional needs (e.g., buddy systems, regular wellbeing checks, online events).