The return of university students was thrown into doubt last night amid a growing row over coronavirus lockdowns on campuses.
As thousands prepared to start the new term, the president of the National Union of Students said the Government was ‘gambling’ with students’ lives.
Labour even called for a delay to the start of the English term until the chaotic testing system can meet soaring demand.
In Manchester, it emerged that 1,700 students under lockdown are unable to even find out if they have Covid-19.
Labour education spokesman Kate Green last night called on ministers to stop students from returning to university until the chaotic testing system could meet meet soaring demand
First year students at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) stand behind a fence after undergraduates self-isolating for a fortnight were told they cannot leave the campus
Manchester Metropolitan Students speak behind a fence following an outbreak of the virus
The undergraduates self-isolating for a fortnight at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) have been told they cannot leave the campus to visit the local testing centre, leading to fears the outbreak will spread.
The Manchester outbreak is just one of at least 36 at universities across Britain.
Labour education spokesman Kate Green last night called on ministers to stop students from returning to university for the start of the academic year – affecting 2.3 million in the UK.
She said they should either delay the start of term or ‘pause’ the return of students to university campuses where courses had not started.
A group of students from MMU question what their university fees are going towards
Students remain in isolation after an outbreak of coronavirus in Manchester
Backing Miss Green, NUS president Larissa Kennedy told The Guardian the union was demanding ‘a functional test-and-trace system in place on campuses and adequate funding to tackle the student mental health crisis’.
She added in a tweet: ‘Government and universities are gambling with students’ lives.’
Pressure to refund tuition
By Emine Sinmaz and Daniel Martin for The Daily Mail
Pressure is mounting on universities to refund tuition fees as thousands of students face lockdowns, online-only courses and the prospect of Christmas confined to their halls.
Tory MPs said it was ‘madness’ that the country’s universities were charging the same fees for ‘second-rate’ learning.
As students face the prospect of being confined to their halls of residence over Christmas because of Covid-19 outbreaks on campuses, 3,000 students have already been locked down in their rooms after cases at 36 universities, including Glasgow, Manchester Metropolitan and Edinburgh Napier.
Last night Robert Halfon, the Conservative chairman of the education select committee, said students must be compensated for the lack of face-to-face learning.
The Department for Education said students who wanted refunds should appeal to their universities. Mr Halfon told the Daily Mail: ‘If we have 3,000 students in lockdown now, it could be 6,000 next week, so ministers need to come up with a plan on testing and tracing.
‘And we need to ensure students are back by Christmas, because a lockdown over Christmas would cause anguish for them and their families.
‘The Government needs to seriously consider a discount, because when you pay for a product you should expect to get that product, and if not, you should get some money returned.’
Tory MP George Freeman said yesterday it was ‘madness’ that students were locked in halls of residences by universities ‘still happily taking their money’.
He said on Twitter: ‘How do I think universities make up the losses from offering student discounts? Well, not from fleecing students! Maybe from vice-chancellors’ £300,000 salaries?’
But outgoing University of Buckingham vice-chancellor Sir Anthony Seldon said: ‘We must have a sense of perspective. Universities have gone to huge lengths to plan for this and many are coping.’
And the Department for Education rejected Labour’s call, insisting it was ‘working closely with universities to support them to keep staff and students as safe as possible’.
The 1,700 MMU students in lockdown yesterday complained of feeling abandoned – with some already plotting their escape.
After 127 positive tests for Covid-19 on Friday, the shocked students – many of them freshers living away from home for the first time – were ordered to self-isolate in their halls of residence for a fortnight.
Desperate undergraduates said supplies of food and toiletries were low and complained of students holding all-night parties likened to ‘prison riots’.
Some tried to ease the boredom by putting up signs in their windows with slogans including ‘send drink’ and ‘f*** Boris’.
As some students in lockdown likened the university to a prison by labelling it ‘HMP MMU’, with security guards blocking them from leaving, legal experts claimed their incarceration could amount to false imprisonment.
Adam Wagner, a human rights barrister at Doughty Street chambers in London, wrote on Twitter: ‘False imprisonment is detention without lawful authority.’
Hours later, university vice-chancellor Professor Malcolm Press conceded it could only ‘expect’ students to follow the self-isolation rules – designed to avoid spreading the infection to their home towns.
While many students pledged to stick it out, others were preparing to flee the city.
Tilly Thompson, 19, said she felt like a ‘caged animal’ and was waiting for her mother to take her home to Wolverhampton.
Students claimed some of those under restrictions had been ignoring the rules and throwing parties. One boasted the quarantine would be ‘a two-week p***-up’, saying he had ‘200 cans of lager’ and ‘it’s going to get messy’.
A student called Tom told BBC Radio 5 Live that people had been running past their flats shouting: ‘Open your doors, we’ve got coronavirus, we want to give it to you.’ He added: ‘It was insane… parties going on everywhere, loud music… It was like a prison riot.’
Martyn Moss, of the University and College Union, said he had warned MMU chiefs that their plans for the ‘mass return of students would inevitably see institutions become Covid incubators’.
He added: ‘Universities should have spent the summer following the science and preparing properly for this inevitable crisis.’