|Volume 50 Number 43, December 5, 2020||ARCHIVE||HOME||JBCENTRE||SUBSCRIBE|
Mass testing of students began on Monday, November 30, at universities across Britain and the north of Ireland. This testing programme is temporary and will last a week, at makeshift test centres that have been set up on campuses, and is timed with the end of term and the return of students to their homes over the winter break. The testing is voluntary, however, with the majority (130), but not all, universities having expressed interest.
High-speed "lateral flow" tests are being employed that give results in less than an hour. Though rapid, these tests have a low accuracy and consequently higher rate of giving false negatives and positives compared with the tests standardly available. Students are therefore being instructed to take two tests separated by a three-day gap, the guideline being that they would be allowed to leave their university accommodation within 24 hours of the second negative, within a "travel window" lasting from December 3-9. Confirmed positives would be told to self-isolate.
The Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) has expressed "grave concerns" and has criticised the plans as rushed, confused and last-minute. As such, it and labelled them a "recipe for chaos". "Testing so many people and following necessary safety measures would be an extremely challenging operation," said the lecturers' union.
The National Union of Students (NUS) demanded that the testing be available to all students. "We are not aware of how universities will decide which students are tested if testing is oversubscribed," the NUS said.
A recent Commons Research Briefing  points out that concerns had been raised before the return of masses of university students to university in September and October by the UCU who said that universities could become the "care homes of a second wave", while the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) had warned that outbreaks were "very likely in universities".
The briefing explains that, on arrival at that time, students were typically placed into "households" to prevent transmission, but a series of outbreaks nevertheless occurred. Many affected students who were subsequently put into self-isolation complained about the level of support and their tuition fees under the circumstances, with a number of universities reverting to online teaching.
Incredibly, the briefing reports that the government does not publish data on outbreaks at universities. However, the authors cite the UCU figure of 47,528 cases among staff and students that had been reported as of November 25 since the start of term. Yet, as not all universities publish this data, it is an underestimate, says the briefing.
In these conditions, students have been taking the initiative, as Workers' Weekly recently reported .
The NUS have launched a campaign under the hashtag #StudentsDeserveBetter, accusing the government of having "ignored the needs of students throughout the pandemic".
The union is currently organising actions and has launched a petition over the following demands:
"Uphold students' basic legal rights - students should not be... scapegoated [or]... threatened and policed by private security forces."
"Give students the right to leave without financial detriment - including exiting accommodation, deferring or permanently leaving our courses."
"Ensure fair treatment during accommodation lockdowns - rent reimbursement for lockdown periods and free internet access, care packages with food, wellbeing materials, and necessities, and targeted educational & mental health support, with facilitation of social activity."
"Provide an effective strategy for education now and for post-Covid recovery". Beyond the current pandemic, the NUS is demanding "a new strategy that delivers lifelong, funded and accessible education for everyone in society."
The context of this and other student action is of an approach taken by the government to "balance the risks and benefits", with students marginalised and treated as a source of rent and tuition fee revenue. Students are upholding that education is a right, not a matter of such balancing acts. The solution lies in consciously mobilising students and staff to work out collectively how to provide and receive education in all conditions and for any necessary support to be provided to achieve this.
1. Carl Baker, Paul Bolton, Susan Hubble, "Higher and further education, back to campus 2020-21", Research Briefing, House of Commons Library, November 25, 2020
2. Workers' Weekly, "Students Fight for their Right to Education: Manchester Students Step Up Fight", November 21, 2020
Workers' Weekly, "Students Take a Stand: Students Face Unprecedented Covid-19 Lockdown Measures", October 3, 2020