British universities are resisting government calls to keep to face-to-face lectures as educational institutions across the globe return to remote learning amid rising Omicron cases.
The move comes as a record number of students have deferred their university places.
The UK’s education secretary Nadhim Zahawi warned British institutions on Sunday there was “no excuse” not to have in-person lectures when some students are paying annual tuition fees of more than £9,000.
“My expectation of universities is that they deliver face-to-face education,” he said.
“They are doing it in primary and secondary schools and in colleges. I expect universities to do the same thing, otherwise explain why not. There are no excuses, we are all in this together.”
Durham University in the north-east of England and Queen’s University Belfast are among 15 UK institutions introducing online teaching as more than 100 establishments are offering a mix of both. Durham said it was introducing temporary Covid controls for the next two weeks in light of a current wave of Omicron infections.
"This will enable a short transition period to test on arrival and assess the prevalence and degree of required self-isolation in our community," a Durham statement said.
“In week one, all labs and practical classes will continue with existing robust Covid mitigation measures, and all other teaching will take place online. In week two, we will reintroduce in-person small to medium sized group teaching while larger group teaching will remain online. We fully expect to revert to full in-person teaching following this transition period.”
King's College London offers both online learning and face-to-face. “We are teaching in person this semester, which begins on Monday 17th January," a spokesperson said. "As stated in our latest update to students, we are planning for in person teaching to take place on campus from that date as originally timetabled.”
The move by British universities comes as the UK recorded more than 150,000 Covid-19 deaths at the weekend, the highest in Europe.
Many institutions in the US and UAE also started 2022 with remote learning in a bid to ride the latest pandemic wave.
In the US, Ivy League establishments have been hit by an increasing number of infections.
“In the last few days, several Association American University institutions have seen a rise in Covid-19 cases on their campuses,” the AAU said.
“In response, they’ve taken swift measures to prevent the further spread of the virus and to protect the health and safety of their students, employees and surrounding communities.
“At Cornell University, surveillance testing recently identified a significant uptick in Covid-19 cases on campus. To limit further spread, Cornell University President Martha Pollack announced that final exams will move online and that most university activities are cancelled.”
Harvard and Yale have both moved to online learning.
“We continue to see record numbers of Covid-19 cases among members of the Harvard community, consistent with the dramatic increase in cases across the region and the nation,” Harvard said.
“As we plan for an in-person spring semester, the important 'circuit breaker' we announced for the first three weeks of January allows us the opportunity to gain more information about the evolving public health situation, to lower the risk of on-campus transmission following holiday travel and gatherings, to reduce the pace at which new cases must be managed by limited university resources, and to provide time for community members to meet the university’s booster requirement, which must be met by January 31.”
Yale has delayed the start of its spring term by one week and moved the first two weeks of classes online for students.
“A recent, worldwide surge in Covid-19 cases, driven by the highly infectious Omicron strain, has prompted us to raise alert levels on campus and adjust our plans to best protect our community,” president Peter Salovey and provost Scott Strobel said in a joint statement.
“As always, our priority is the health and well-being of everyone on campus and those in our surrounding community. We are monitoring public health conditions closely.”
New York and Princeton universities have moved their final exams online and cancelled events and gatherings.
In Dubai, some universities are looking to switch to temporary remote learning.
Rochester Institute of Technology is hoping to revert to face-to-face lessons in a few weeks and BITS Pilani Dubai Campus is assessing the situation before students return at the end of the month.