Yorkshire students urged to act responsibly by region’s higher education chiefs

Higher education leaders in the region have urged students to act responsibly as hundreds of thousands prepare to start term, Ruth Dacey reports.

Monday, 21st September 2020, 4:45 pm

Updated Monday, 21st September 2020, 4:59 pm

Nearly 200,000 students studied in Yorkshire last year, and the start of this semester will see a two per cent rise of undergraduates starting at universities across the region, compared with last year, according to UCAS.

As the new increased cohort of students, alongside those returning, prepare to start term higher education leaders across the region have warned students to “do the right thing by following the rules”.

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Professor Shirley Congdon, the chair of Yorkshire Universities, a group representing 12 institutions in the region, told The Yorkshire Post: “In this period what I will say [to students] is please act responsibly for the greater good.

Nearly 200,000 students study in Yorkshire every year. Photo credit: PA

“Do the right thing by following the rules, even though you are going to have some short term curtailment of some of the socialising you would normally like to do.

“If you can be strong and curtail your activities, stick to your small groups – then you will be making a significant impact on the health and well being of the society more broadly.”

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Dr Peter O’Brien, executive director of Yorkshire Universities added: “Universities take there responsibility really seriously in terms of welfare of students and staff and particularly of local communities – the students and staff are part of that local community.

Pictured, Professor Shirley Congdon the chair for Yorkshire Universities and Vice-Chancellor for the University of Bradford. Photo credit: Tony Johnson/JPIMediaResell

“We’ve all got a responsibility at the moment, whilst we are in the midst of a pandemic and infections are rising, to follow the guidance, to follow the advice, to make sure we are safe and others are safe as well.

“Because this is a virus that is transmitted between people so we have a responsibility not only to ourselves but to our fellow citizens, whether they be students or members of the local community or staff working at a university.”

The call to action comes as a survey for The University and College Union suggests full-time residents of England’s university towns and cities fear a rise in coronavirus cases as students return.

Survation polled 1,012 people living in 25 towns and cities with large student populations. In Yorkshire this included Bradford and Leeds where increased lockdown restrictions have been put in place. Across the region people were also surveyed in Sheffield and Hull.

Executive director of Yorkshire Universities, Dr Peter O’Brien. Photo: Submitted

In the national survey of the 1,012 people more than half (57 per cent) believed the return of students would result in extra restrictions.

Professor Congdon, who is also the Vice-Chancellor of Bradford University, said: “Of course there is concern from the public… but We can’t keep young people in what they may perceive as a locked up state because it will lead to people not complying with the rules.

“If you confine people’s behaviors too much you tend to find non-compliance. The key to this really is to make sure all students, all staff, all members of the public, understand this personal responsibility.

“If they take on risk individually – then they are taking a risk not just for themselves but for other people. We have all got to work together to take collective action to manage the risk.”

The University and College Union had previously urged universities to scrap face-to-face teaching until Christmas and to have online learning as the default.

Dr Jo Grady, the general secretary for The University and College Union, said: “Ministers and vice-chancellors are insisting students should travel and universities should engage in face-to-face teaching, even in areas with local lockdowns… It cannot be business as normal at the moment and they need to stop pretending that is a credible option.”

However Dr O’Brien stressed the importance for students to receive “blended learning” – a mix of in-person learning with social distancing, then online, involving recorded lectures, live online learning and self study.

“Not every course can be delivered online, there are practical course – such as medical sciences… and a whole range of ones, where it is simply not possible.

“You need this kind of blended form of learning and universities have invested quite a lot of money in the systems to enable that blended learning to take place.”

He added the important role universities in Yorkshire and the UK will provides to recovery. Across the region it brings £2.9bn a year to the economy, and provides more than 54,000 jobs.

Dr O’Brien said: “The world is very different to what it was last year – we are all having to adjust to it in a particular way but students come to towns and cities in Yorkshire and they enrich the place.

“They do invest resources in those places – they are important for the local economy. But at the moment we are facing the most unprecedented public health crisis we have faced in a generation so we’ve got to follow those rules and those guidelines.”

Universities reaction across Yorkshire ahead of semester start

“We are proud of the long-standing and positive relationships we have forged with our local communities. Universities and colleges are important to the local area, boosting employment and spending. Their social and cultural influence places them at the heart of the community.

“A huge amount of work has been undertaken to make campuses welcoming and covid secure, and to ensure our students and staff understand what we must all do to keep each other and our neighbours safe. More than ever, it is crucial that we all protect and share responsibility for the communities we all work and live in – and that we respect, support and show consideration for one another.”

Dr Tom Hoyland, Associate Dean, Student Experience, University of Hull added in certain ways, the experience in their first few weeks may end up “being better” for new students.

He said: “We have introduced a lot of new events and socialising outside. They’ll still feel the excitement of starting a new life – possibly moving away from home – and meeting new people. But that pressure to party hard and live that student life that they’ll have seen in the movies – will be less. And that might be a good thing for many of our students.

“The tempo of our WelcomeFest will be more inclusive and help students settle in. Personally, I think that because we have had to rethink how our WelcomeFest can work – it has led to us approaching it in a different way – with heaps of innovation and creativity.

“It’s going to be fun. Different – but fun.”

A spokesman for the University of York said: “The University is following the latest public health and government advice to support a safe return to teaching and learning.

“We have been meticulously planning for the new term and we continue to work with our partners across the city to help York be a safe place to work, study and visit.”

While in South Yorkshire a spokesperson for Sheffield Hallam University said: “We are also working closely with partners across the city to ensure students are aware of their responsibilities to stay safe and be considerate neighbours, and to follow our code of conduct during their time at Sheffield Hallam.

“We recognise that there can occasionally be challenges for local residents living in areas with high numbers of students. Therefore we have launched a 24/7 service which residents can use to report any issues that cannot be solved through informal conversations.

“We continue to work closely with our partners, including local authorities and Public Health England, on the latest developments as we respond to Covid-19. The university is well-equipped and prepared to adapt quickly as government guidance changes.”

And a spokesperson from the University of Sheffield, said: “We have been working hard to plan for a safe return to campus this autumn, with a blend of online and face-to-face teaching to enhance students’ learning, and have consulted with our local trade unions throughout this process.

“A significant part of our ongoing communication with both new and returning students is focused on the importance of staying safe and being considerate members of the local community and we will continue to reinforce the messages of the importance of social distancing.”

The university added key measures introduced include staff and students wearing face coverings in teaching spaces, meeting rooms and around campus unless exempt for a medical reason or disability; hand sanitisers at building entrances; one-way systems with clear signage to maintain social distancing; reducing the number of people on campus at any one time; and regular cleaning of touch points, toilets and frequently used areas.

A Universities UK spokeswomen said: “Ensuring the health, safety and well being of students, staff and local communities in the new academic year is the number one priority for universities,” said a Universities UK spokeswoman.”

The Universities Minister Michelle Donelan warned police will take “serious action” against those organising large events.

After reports some companies have been advertising mass social freshers’ events, Ms Donelan said: “Health advice only works if we all follow it.

“I urge students, just like the wider public, to do their bit and act responsibly to ensure campuses can remain open for them to use and enjoy.”

She added: “As a Government, we have clearly set out the consequences for anyone who risks spreading the virus, whether that’s through illicit social gatherings or organising large events.

“The police and local authorities will take serious action where it is necessary.”

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