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UK universities spend millions on Covid-safe campuses

Image: nancekievill, via Shutterstock

Freedom of information requests show huge cost of measures including sanitiser, signage, security and PPE

Higher education institutions spent millions of pounds making their campuses Covid-secure for this academic year, Research Professional News can reveal.

Freedom of information requests have shown that hundreds of thousands of pounds were spent between March and September 2020 on hand sanitiser, campus security, student hardship funds and the reconfiguration of buildings for social distancing.

One university spent more than £2 million on bad debt provision associated with the pandemic, another spent around £220,000 on reshaping its campus and one institution spent £23,000 on wipe-clean pillows.

The cash was spent before the latest nationwide lockdown prompted the government to ask many students, except those on a handful of practical courses such as medicine, to stay away from campus.

University groups

In October, Research Professional News revealed that members of the research-intensive Russell Group had forked out millions between them on preparing their campuses for the first new term during the pandemic.

But further FOI requests have now revealed that members of University Alliance, which represents technical and professional universities, and MillionPlus, which represents modern universities, have also been forced to shell out hundreds of thousands on making their campuses Covid-secure.

The responses revealed the stark differences in pressures these universities faced, with larger proportions of disadvantaged students and learners on practical courses—such as healthcare—to support.

University Alliance chief executive Vanessa Wilson told Research Professional News that the government’s recent instructions to most students to stay away from campuses until at least mid-February would “have a huge impact on accommodation refunds”. She said that accommodation refunds had so far cost Alliance universities an estimated average of £450,000 a week. “University accommodation refunds do not address those students in private accommodation and it is not clear if or how those companies and landlords will respond,” she said.

“Universities can provide some support to those students through hardship funds, but this will be limited to those most in need. The situation is complex and equitable solutions will not be found unless the government steps in.”

Counting the costs

Research Professional News’s investigation revealed that Kingston University had spent £2,578,000 on Covid-19 measures, including £1m on additional hardship funds and bursaries. A spokesman said the university had made significant progress in improving its financial position in recent years, which meant it remained financially secure. He added: “Continued careful management, a financially sustainable cost base, an upturn in recruitment and less of a reliance on overseas student growth than many others in the sector mean the university remains well positioned to weather the ongoing public health crisis and plan for the future.”

At Leeds Beckett University, bad debt provision cost just over £2m. The university also spent £941,000 on providing additional hardship funds and bursaries and £251,000 on allowances for eligible students for IT equipment, and it contributed £35,000 to the local authority and antisocial behaviour team. The university has been contacted for comment.

The University of Central Lancashire spent £1,204,000 in total, including £7,000 on emergency food parcels, £101,000 on signage, £21,000 on lanyards and £56,000 on face coverings. Coventry University spent £648,000, including £223,000 on remodelling the campus space and signage and £156,000 on extra security staff, marshals and overtime.

The University of Greenwich spent £620,000, which included £4,000 on additional bus services between its three campuses to allow for greater social distancing, £12,000 on organising a ticketing and bus queuing system and £39,000 on marquees to allow for social distancing.

The University of Brighton, which estimates that Covid-19 cost it around £626,208 in total between March and September last year, spent £313,969 on extra staffing—primarily on security guards for closed campus buildings. The total also includes £19,084 in fee waivers and stipends for postgraduate research students.

Smaller institutions also had to spend their cash on creating Covid-secure campuses. Abertay University spent £39,181, Solent University spent £73,437 and Bath Spa University spent £57,949.

By 31 October last year, Teesside University had spent more than a million pounds on Covid-19 costs, with commitments to spend in excess of £150,000 more.

Spending by the University of South Wales was “in the region of £479,000”, while Birmingham City University spent £537,000, including more than £280,000 on personal protective equipment and £131,500 on sanitiser. Anglia Ruskin University spent £528,574 and the University of the West of England £549,000.

The University of Hertfordshire’s central estates department recorded spending £63,849 on personal protective equipment, £120,571 on cleaning and £149,159 on signage and equipment, with more spent by individual university departments.

Canterbury Christ Church University spent a total of £308,190, including £20,988 on health and safety consultants and £11,498 on free-standing and wall-mounted sanitiser stations.

Middlesex University spent an estimated £140,000, while Oxford Brookes spent around £264,784. The University of Cumbria, which runs a number of health courses, spent £114,527, including £23,000 on wipe-clean pillows.

Scottish institutions

In Scotland, Edinburgh Napier University spent £223,527 between March and September on making its campuses Covid-safe, plus extra on staff time and other costs, which it said were impossible to quantify. Glasgow Caledonian University spent £164,285, not including extra staff costs or the income it lost through its gym building becoming a community testing centre.

Robert Gordon University provided nearly £500,000 worth of refunds for accommodation to students living in halls and spent another £500,000 on buying laptops and other IT equipment to support homeworking. It also spent £63,300 on sanitiser, signage and personal protective equipment, and screen and room requirements on campus.

Spending by the University of the West of Scotland came to £230,225, including £16,944 on door openers. A spokesman said the university was continuing to invest to ensure safe learning and working environments. “Any Covid-safety adaptations to campuses, required in line with national guidance, have been fully costed to ensure maximum efficiency, and the university remains in a stable financial position.”

Some universities did not share their Covid-19 costs with Research Professional News, including the University of Wolverhampton and the University of Sunderland.