As increasing numbers of UK universities wrestle with Covid-19 outbreaks, experts are warning that student halls are too full to be safe. But vice-chancellors have reacted angrily to government attempts to blame them for the crisis, saying ministers pushed them to take extra students at the last minute after the U-turn on A-level grades, with no regard for social distancing.

The reopening of universities has so far resulted in reports of coronavirus cases at more than 60 institutions, with entire halls locked down at Manchester Metropolitan and Glasgow universities and thousands of students self-isolating in their rooms.

A top US public health expert is now warning that unless new preventative measures are taken, the UK could see similar rates of Covid-19 transmission as in American universities where by 25 September, several weeks into the academic year, 1,300 universities and colleges had reported 130,000 cases of coronavirus.

Prof Gavin Yamey, director of the Centre for Policy Impact in Global Health at Duke University, who is leading research into the spread of Covid across higher education, says: “Reopening a university is like dumping a cruise ship in the middle of town and letting all the passengers off. It’s entirely unsurprising that you’re going to get outbreaks.”Experts are concerned that although UK universities have drastically scaled back face-to-face teaching so that campuses can run at around a third of their usual occupancy, many student halls are full.

Vice-chancellors reacted with fury this week to threats by the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, to dock their bonuses because of what he called the Covid “crisis” in universities. One, who asked not to be named, said: “The government looked to universities to sort out the post A-level mess. They pleaded with us to take students who met offers. They were not interested in capacity, social distancing on campus, pressures in halls or private dwellings. Suddenly they have forgotten all of that and now universities are the problem.”A second vice-chancellor, who runs an elite research university, agreed: “We baled the government out after the A-level fiasco, and many of us have taken a voluntary pay cut because of the pandemic anyway. Infections are rising in the community, not just in universities.”

In a paper in the British Medical Journal last month, Yamey warned that transmission of the virus between asymptomatic students could occur “at lightning speed” in halls, or “dorms” as they are known in the US. He said that as well as quarantining students on arrival, high-frequency testing was essential, with students ideally needing to be tested two or three times a week.

Some UK universities, including Cambridge, Imperial College London, Cardiff and Exeter, have their own testing facilities, and Cambridge has said it intends to test all students in halls weekly. But many institutions are relying on public testing centres and say students and staff are struggling to get slots for a test.The independent Sage group of science advisers said this week that modelling showed the virus was transmitted in universities within residential halls, as well as through in-person teaching. It called for students to be able to choose whether to live at home or on campus, and for all teaching to be available online.

Levi Pay, a former director of student services who now advises universities on the student experience, says: “It didn’t make sense even before this spike in infections to bring so many students back into these large accommodation blocks, where there are no clearly defined boundaries between households. We should be under-using capacity in student accommodation by quite some margin, but that is definitely not happening. Because of the A-level fiasco some universities have more students than ever before.”

Pay says the strategy of separating students into “bubbles” or household groups and expecting them not to socialise with other students is “wishful thinking”. He points out that most student rooms are allocated randomly, and first years are unlikely to live with five people they really “click with” so it is inevitable they will go looking for friends. “Students need a certain level of social interaction. It’s not a want, it’s a need,” he says.

Fraser Amos, a final-year student in global sustainable development at Warwick University, is helping to rally support for a rent strike in the university’s halls, a movement that is growing across the country.

“Universities are putting rents and revenues above student lives,” he says. “Thousands of students have been pushed to move across the country and pay exorbitant rents for an experience that isn’t going to be safe. How can universities say to students: you’ve got to stay in your block or flat with six people we’ve assigned to you? There will be big mental health issues, because these places are designed as somewhere to sleep not to spend all your time.”

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