Universities have been accused of hesitating to move all teaching online and keeping students until after the fee deadline.
This is in an effort to minimise losses in the student body, with many fearing that students will drop out if they do not see “value for money” in teaching.
Currently in England, students who drop out during their first term have to pay 25% of their fees, but those who leave after the end of Term 1 are liable for 50% of their course fees.
Vicky Blake, president of the University and College Union (UCU), said: “There is a real question as to why universities haven’t taken what would, by any measure, be a sensible planning decision at this point and suspended face-to-face teaching.
“I think it has to be about fees, and that is disgusting.
“The longer universities can keep the students there, the more money they are entitled to. It is grim when you patch together what is probably behind all this.”
Others have commented that it is irrational to assume students will drop out of university en masse, as a result of the pandemic’s impact on universities.
Simon Marginson, professor of higher education at Oxford University, said: “Where courses are going wholly online now, this is not triggering mass withdrawal.”
He added: “In the context of a collapsed youth labour market and a prolonged recession to come, an online higher education and degree is a much better outcome than no degree. Students and their families know this.”
There is a real question as to why universities haven’t taken what would, by any measure, be a sensible planning decision at this point and suspended face-to-face teaching.
– Vicky Blake
Meanwhile, university staff are fearing redundancies as they face pressure by management to offer face-to-face teaching.
Ms Blake said: “We are operating in the context of redundancy announcements. It makes it feel very difficult to put your head above the parapet.”
It emerged last week that the government ignored the 21 September advice from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) that university and college teaching should be moved online, except where essential.
The government also decided against a national “circuit breaker” lockdown recommended by Sage, arguing that the mental health of students and others must be taken into consideration.
Ms Blake raised concerns regarding the wellbeing of university staff. She said: “Staff are getting in touch with me at their wits’ end. It’s a horrible thing to be told people are terrified.”
She added: “I keep hearing that staff are being told not to isolate even though their students have tested positive. Some are teaching in poorly ventilated spaces. Cleaners aren’t being clearly told which flats are isolating. Students don’t know that the flat down the corridor has Covid.”
One lecturer, Ben described feeling “disposable, like cannon fodder.”
Some staff members at universities are in junior positions. One PhD student in the University of St Andrews makes £81.75 a week, putting him below the £120 a week minimum required to claim statutory sick pay if he contracts the virus.
At Manchester Metropolitan University, an academic has said staff are being told not to isolate in the event a student taught in the class contracts the virus.
“A student in one colleague’s classes tested positive and the lecturer only found out because the student contacted him directly.”