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Sage recommended online teaching three weeks ago


In-person teaching continued despite Sage call for teaching to move online

Advice from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies—given to ministers on 21 September—suggested moving most face-to-face teaching in universities online.

Minutes published on 12 October reveal Sage had advised that, unless in-person teaching was “absolutely essential”, it should be carried out remotely. The meeting took place as the number of Covid-19 cases in England started to rise, and universities began reporting cases of the virus among students.

Sage highlighted that cases of Covid-19 had been “increasing across the country in all age groups”. “The effect of opening of schools, colleges and universities has only just begun to affect this increase,” Sage said.

But three weeks after the meeting on 12 October, prime minister Boris Johnson promised in parliament that universities will “remain open” despite upcoming Covid-19 restrictions in some parts of England, and did not tell universities to move teaching online.

On 29 September, education secretary Gavin Williamson pledged that in-person teaching would stay despite a rise in Covid-19 cases—which would have been around a week after Sage recommended that teaching should go online.

Although universities have remained open throughout the pandemic, most have said they will deliver “blended” teaching this year with face-to-face classes and online lectures. Growing local outbreaks have already forced some universities to temporarily move all of their teaching online only.

Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union—which has been campaigning for all teaching to be moved online—said the Sage minutes showed that ministers “were given clear recommendations on how to stem the spread of the virus before term started at the vast majority of universities”.

“The chaos we see on campus and in halls of residence now is a direct result of ministers’ decision to ignore that advice and choose to put the health of university staff, students and local communities at risk,” Grady said. “To stop more areas being forced into harsher restrictions, we need a nationally coordinated response from government that belatedly moves working online at universities.”

Research Professional News has contacted the Department for Education for comment.

Elsewhere, universities minister Michelle Donelan reassured MPs that promised guidance for universities on how to safely manage the end of term as students return to their families was “certainly not late”.

In the House of Commons on 12 October, Donelan said it was “important that we get this right” and said she had been working with the higher education taskforce “to identify the issues and ensure that comprehensive guidance is forthcoming”.

She also promised that there would be “a new data regime” published next week with the Office for Students to track Covid-19 cases at universities. There are around 68 coronavirus outbreaks at UK universities, according to Public Health England.