More than 750 students at Northumbria University are self-isolating after testing positive for Covid-19.
A spokesperson for the university, based in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, said that as of Friday it was aware of 770 students testing positive – 78 of whom are symptomatic.
All these students, as well as their flatmates and any close contacts, are self-isolating for 14 days in line with Government guidance, the spokesperson said.
The university is among more than 50 institutions to have confirmed coronavirus cases in recent weeks, as thousands of students return to campuses.
By comparison, Glasgow University has seen some 124 confirmed cases and there have been 382 recorded at the University of Manchester.
Reacting to the figures at Northumbria University, Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union, said: “We warned last month that, given the current restrictions in the region, the direction of the infection rate and the problems with test and trace, it was clearly far too soon for a mass return to campus.
“We told Northumbria University they had a civic duty to put the health of staff, students and the local community first and we take no pleasure in now seeing another preventable crisis play out.
“The university sector and the Government must address this public health crisis immediately.”
Self-isolating Northumbria University students are being provided with food, laundry, cleaning materials and welfare support by the university, working alongside the students’ union and Newcastle City Council.
Meanwhile, students will also receive additional academic support if they miss out on face-to-face tuition during their isolation period.
The university spokesperson added: “The increase in numbers comes in the week after students returned to university and reflects the good access to and availability of testing, as well as rigorous and robust reporting systems.
“In parts of the UK where universities started term earlier, numbers of student cases surged in induction week, and then reduced.
“We are making it clear to students that if they break the rules they will be subject to fines from police and disciplinary action by the universities which may include fines, final warnings or expulsion.”
Northumbria and Newcastle universities are working with NHS Test and Trace and Public Health England North East to trace anyone who has been in close contact with those affected.
Students also being encouraged to download the NHS Covid-19 app.
A member of staff at Northumbria University, who asked to remain anonymous, said there was more face-to-face teaching there than at other universities in the region.
The source said: “We have high anxiety levels among staff and students who have a sense that the establishment is not listening to those anxieties about face-to-face teaching.
“There’s a lot of frustration because almost everything that we deliver face-to-face could be done much more safely online.
“There’s confusion about why we are not following other universities in the region who I think moved online earlier, pre-empting this.”
The member of staff said many students were staying away from face-to-face sessions, with some lessons attracting fewer than half the course members.
Many Northumbria University undergraduates lived in the family home rather than staying in student accommodation, so may be staying away to protect relatives, the employee said.
The source added: “We are worried about their access to full teaching, this is not just about anxiety for health but fairness and who is able to access teaching, and who is not.”
A Northumbria University lecturer said she had spoken to a colleague who felt face-to-face teaching was unsafe.
The lecturer, who asked not to be named, told the PA news agency: “I had to remind her we are not working on the railway lines, on oil rigs or other extreme circumstances.
“We shouldn’t be in a situation where we don’t feel safe at work – nobody should.”
She said staff were told in an email about the 770 positive cases.
“It’s terrifying, and that information was delivered in a way that did not recognise that we would see that figure and gasp in horror.”
Councillor Irim Ali, Newcastle City Council’s cabinet member for neighbourhoods and public health, praised the “incredible lengths” Newcastle and Northumbria universities had gone “to create Covid-secure environments”.
She added: “Sadly, a small number of students are undermining these efforts and, at a time when Covid infection rates are rising across the region, it is welcome that the universities are recognising this and warning those who break the rules about their conduct.
“We are working alongside both universities to support those students who are self-isolating, and have mobilised volunteers to deliver food packages and other essential items to those confined to their accommodation.
“But while work continues to control ongoing outbreaks, we need all students to comply with the regulations and guidance.”
A spokesperson for the Northumbria Students’ Union said it had been working with the university and council to “create an environment where students can not only safely access the education they came here for but enjoy life on campus too”.