More than 50 universities in the UK have confirmed cases of coronavirus as thousands of students return to campus.
According to analysis, up to 2,600 positive cases of Covid-19 have been identified at these universities.
A surge in coronavirus cases in recent weeks has resulted in thousands of students at some universities – including Manchester Metropolitan and Glasgow University – being forced to self-isolate in their halls.
Northumbria University confirmed late Friday afternoon that 770 students tested positive for Covid-19 and are now all self-isolating.
There were more than 200 cases at the University of Sheffield and 177 staff and students at the University of Liverpool, according to a survey by the PA News Agency, which contacted 140 institutions.
Around 56 universities across the UK had at least one confirmed case of Covid-19, an analysis of university responses and media reports suggest.
Most of the cases among students and staff appear to be in northern England cities, as well as Scottish universities, which were the first to reopen. However, there have been cases at facilities across the UK.
There have been 47 cases among Oxford Brookes University students while at Sussex University a staff member and 10 students self-isolate after testing positive for Covid-19, the PA survey shows. However, not all cases among students and staff have been reported “on campus”. Some have performed in local communities or in private dormitories.
A government spokesman said, “We recognize that this has been a really challenging time for students, especially those who need to self-isolate at the beginning of their university trip. We asked universities to ensure that those who isolate themselves get the support they need.
“Universities are well prepared for a local outbreak and we have worked with them to develop action plans in the event of positive cases on campus or an increase in local cases.”
Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, Vice President of Higher Education at the National Union of Students (NUS), said: “The rise in Covid rates in universities now requires drastic action. It is deeply irresponsible to continue doing business as usual and the government and universities need to be honest with students about what the pandemic can mean for their university experience. “
She said, “Fully accessible online education needs to be an immediate reality, and we need digital investments nationally to make that happen.”
Speaking at an independent Sage meeting on Friday, Professor Christina Pagel of University College London (UCL) said, “I think we have to recognize that students at university need support and that it shouldn’t be a blame game.”
She added, “If you get me stuck in the house with seven strangers, the more likely I am to get Covid than where I am now, and I think that needs recognition.”
Nick Hillman, Director of the Institute for Higher Education Policy (Hepi), said: “It’s a stressful and difficult time for students right now and no one would have wished for this special start to the academic year.
“But we also need to recognize that the number of students who test positive, as well as the number of self-isolating students, make up a tiny fraction of the total UK student body.
“Universities need to support students who are self-isolating, and that support seems a lot – but not always – where it is needed.”
University and College Union (UCU) general secretary, Jo Grady, said: “It is an outrage that ministers and universities spent the summer talking about a student experience that academia and staff said was never likely. “
She added: “The priority for ministers now must be a support package that covers lost income for universities and provides vital protection for staff and students.”
A spokeswoman for Universities UK (UUK) said: “The priority of all universities is to promote the health and wellbeing of their students, staff and local communities, and to ensure that students can continue their education during this pandemic.
“This is a very challenging time with Covid-19 cases increasing in many communities.
“All universities work in partnership with their local government and public health authorities to adapt to changing local conditions, effectively implement outbreak control plans to protect their communities, and continue to ensure that risk mitigation measures are in place.
“When students isolate themselves, universities take care of both their physical and emotional wellbeing, including access to testing and health care, mental health support, online learning, safe social interaction, delivery of Food, laundry and financial support. “