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Universities spend millions on ‘Covid-secure’ campuses

Research Professional News investigation uncovers multimillion-pound bill for campus alterations

Universities are spending millions of pounds each on making their campuses ‘Covid-secure’, with one London institution estimating it will spend more than £14 million on ensuring a safe campus this academic year, an analysis by Research Professional News has revealed.

Responses to a freedom of information request, sent to the 24 members of the Russell Group of research-intensive universities, found that individual institutions have spent staggering sums preparing for the academic year, with total costs across higher education likely to run into tens of millions.

Spending on hand sanitiser alone runs to more than £100,000 at several institutions, while personal protective equipment is costing hundreds of thousands each. Tens of thousands of pounds more are going on cleaning, staff training, signage and making space for social distancing.

Universities listed up to ten separate items of Covid-related expenditure to prepare for the academic term, ranging from building alterations to postage for library book returns, covering spending between March, when the national lockdown was introduced, and the end of September.

The data show that many Russell Group universities have already spent well over £1m, with some reporting much larger sums.

Spending breakdowns

King’s College London, which has around 31,000 students, estimates it will spend £14,449,660 over the academic year from 1 August (including spending after September) on achieving a safe campus. Amounts spent before that date were small, it states, because the university community was largely off campus.

The biggest cost for King’s is expected to be £5,175,000 on creating enough space for social distancing. It expects to spend another £4,111,666 on masks, wipe pods and sanitisers, £2,618,194 on extra cleaning and £2,009,800 on providing water, boosting air quality and extra wash points. The remainder is going on signage and barriers.

The University of Manchester, with 40,000 students, estimates that it spent £5.9m on Covid-19 safety supplies and resources between March and September, including personal protective equipment, signage, sanitiser, screens, cleaning materials, external cleaning, IT and audiovisual items, and student support, although this may include some Covid-19 research activities.

The University of Exeter’s costs for the same period amounted to £1,960,000, including £188,000 on a staff and student testing service, and £802,000 on moving and storing furniture, hiring marquees, cleaning, washing machines, making alterations to buildings and paying professional fees. It has just over half as many students as Manchester.

With no testing service, spending at the University of Leeds, which has around 38,000 students, has been lower. It has spent a total of £936,000 from March to September, of which £36,000 was on communications and signage, £199,000 on building variation and screening, £23,000 on enhanced maintenance, £236,000 on cleaning materials and personal protective equipment, £215,000 on cleaning equipment and dispensers, £102,000 on sanitiser and £125,000 on technical support.

A University of Leeds spokesperson said: “The health and safety of students and staff is our top priority, and we have followed government and Public Health England advice to implement measures to address that, working closely with local agencies. Accordingly, the university is prioritising spend in these areas and is able to bear these unexpected costs.”

The smaller Queen Mary, University of London, spent more than £600,000 on personal protective equipment and hand sanitiser, nearly £200,000 on screens and £35,820 on specialist cleaning. Staff costs and training amounted to more than £125,000 in the period covered by the information request.

At the University of Oxford, purchases under £100,000 are devolved to academic departments, research institutes, research centres, libraries, museums and other units, so no overall spending figure was available. But since mid-May, the university has operated a central store supplying personal protective equipment, sanitiser and other supplies to supplement what departments have been buying. It reports that the total expenditure of this store to the end of September, excluding VAT, was £439,852. This includes £75,000 on washable face coverings and £7,797 on Tork rolls and dispensers (those large rolls of absorbent—often blue—paper that have become all too familiar in the coronavirus world).

By mid-October, the university had spent another £200,000 on its Testing for Covid-19 Early Alert Service, a bespoke test-and-trace service.

Meanwhile, Durham University spent £1,212,915 in total between March and September on measures to make its campus safe, including £33,250 on moving furniture to enable social distancing and £8,933 on posting back library loans. More than £64,000 went on extra security cover and £39,000 on extra cleaning staff. And it also reports incurring “considerable additional expenditure” to mitigate the impact of coronavirus, including investments for homeworking. Durham, with around 19,000 students, is also running its own testing service.

Imperial College London is another institution running its own testing. In addition, it has spent £685,488 on Covid-19 safety measures, including £258,395 on face masks and £149,367 on hand wipes, while Queen’s University Belfast estimates the cost implications of the return to campus to be around £2m.

All universities were contacted for comment.

Sheffield, York, University College London and the London School of Economics and Political Science refused the freedom of information request on the grounds that it would cost too much to collate the information, which is held across different departments. The University of Cambridge reported that the information was not held, although it said it had spent £218,153 on first aid and safety equipment as part of general Covid-19 contingency costs.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said that while some employers had invested properly in making their campuses as safe as possible, “unfortunately too much of what we have seen is hygiene theatre”.

A spokesperson for Universities UK said universities had spent much more than in a “normal” year on Covid-19 safety measures, enhanced digital learning platforms, additional student learning support and catch-up study, as well as mental health and wellbeing support, and that it was likely these costs would rise further.

The spokesperson added: “In the spending review, we must see government ensure there is no cut in real-terms funding per university student and increase spending to support student wellbeing. We would also like to see government commit to funding transformative change in higher education to enhance regional growth, strengthen economic activity and improve life chances for individuals.”

Analysis: Harriet Swain, Research Professional News associate editor (higher education)

Some of these figures uncovered by the freedom of information request are staggering. They show just how much it is costing universities to keep their campuses open during the pandemic.

They also show how some universities—particularly those that have set up their own testing systems—are spending a lot more than others. Since much of the spending is on on-going expenses, such as hand sanitiser and cleaning, the costs are likely to increase substantially over the next few months.

It is worth noting that all this spending on campuses is happening when a large proportion of teaching is taking place nowhere near them, having been shifted online in some cases even before term started.

Will universities be keen to resume face-to-face teaching as soon as possible to justify the amounts they have spent, or will they be unwilling to keep spending such large sums on items such as hand sanitiser in the new year and be tempted to stay online?

The other question is what the knock-on effects will be for university finances even once the immediate crisis of the pandemic is over.

While the government promised loans to cover any shortfall in student recruitment, and help through its restructuring regime for institutions that face going under, subsidies for providing personal protective equipment are not on offer. It means that whatever happens to student numbers next year (and potential dropouts and refunds this year), most universities will be having to cut their budgets—and that’s without whatever happens with the government’s response to Augar and the possibility of tuition fee reductions.

Dire predictions of shortfalls in university finances driven by falls in student numbers have so far not materialised. In July, the Institute for Fiscal Studies warned that Covid-19 losses could reach £19 billion and that at least 13 universities could go bust without a personalised government bailout. Buoyant admissions figures from Ucas mean this now looks overblown. But worries remain about a possible increase in the number of students dropping out as dissatisfaction with online learning grows.

Earlier this month, Fiona McIntyre reported that universities were bracing themselves for a financial hit because of increasing calls for refunds after a surge in coronavirus cases forced more teaching online.

And even the Institute for Fiscal Studies’ most optimistic scenario, based on student numbers remaining stable, predicted losses of £3bn, with universities also losing income from services such as conferences, events and catering.

Russell Group universities were expected to suffer most from potential funding shortfalls if international students stayed away, but they are likely to be in better financial shape than many to bear the unexpected costs of Covid-19 safety measures. For many across higher education, these costs will be less sustainable.

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