Students are not to blame for the rise in coronavirus cases, one of Wales’ most senior university officials has insisted.
Infection rates in a number of “university towns” across Wales have soared in recent weeks – and came as students returned to campuses across the country.
According to the latest Public Health Wales figures, Cardiff has one of the highest number of cases per 100,000 people.
However, Professor Cara Aitchison, Vice Chancellor of Cardiff Metropolitan University, said students should not be made a scapegoat and argued that the vast majority of them had behaved responsibly.
She said: “Looking after young people is investment in the future. These are the people we are all going to be dependent on one day. I am so impressed with the majority of students and how responsible they have been.
“I think sometimes people forget the pressure on young people when they were forced out of schools and universities. People also forget that when you’re 18, six-months is a long period of time.”
She said mass testing of students in some places “caused panic” and is meaningless unless the rest of the population is also mass tested as a comparison.
But she called for better local testing facilities if students do start showing symptoms.
Since term began her university, which has 11,500 students and around 1,500 staff, has had less than 10 confirmed cases reported – most off campus.
“We have not done mass testing. I don’t see the point in testing all students. That has just caused panic (where it’s been done). The thing we need is rapid tests if someone develops symptoms.
“I have been asking for weeks for a local testing centre. That’s something that could have been done. Students have been asked to travel outside Cardiff for tests.
“We had one positive test on site in halls yesterday (October 12) and four positive tests among students off site last weekend but the number of positive tests has been less than 10 since term started,”
The university is keeping daily data on any cases but that is only a small part of the huge changes for staff and students the pandemic has brought.
Its campuses in Llandaff and Cyncoed have been adapted to be “Covid-safe”, at a cost of more than £1m, but still only one sixth of the 11,500 students can be present at one time. Most courses have gone online but around 30% of teaching is face to face.
While massive lectures with hundreds of students have halted seminars, workshops and tutorials are still happening, albeit reduced.
The university, which, like many, has an office in and links with China, started its coronavirus planning as far back as January, well ahead of the UK government and devolved governments.
As a result it could move teaching online immediately there was a national lockdown in March and this term around 30% of teaching is face to face – compared to some UK institutions which have moved all teaching online – Professor Aitchison said.
The university refunded students for accommodation they had to move out of last term and, unlike some parts of the UK, has not had demands for reduced tuition fees with so much now online.
Professor Aitchison said staff are working long hours to create good quality learning online “not lectures posted to YouTube”.
“We are not hearing demands from students wanting refunds from our student union here,” she added,
“It is only the second week of full term, but the feedback is that some levels of engagement are higher.
“Back in January we had one objective – we wanted our community of 13,000 students and staff to be of sound body and mind when all this is over. League tables and finance did have to take a back seat. That was our single objective.
“We could see at the outset that mental health was important as physical health. We know the virus affects older people more so our young people might not be affected physically but would be mentally.”
But she warned the pandemic has put even greater pressure on already tight budgets at universities in Wales and else where.
The £27m provide to higher education by Welsh Government to offset those costs was not enough and does not cover the money spent and income lost in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.
Bangor University last week announced it will shed 200 jobs and Cardiff University has also warned cuts are likely. Professor Aitchison said her university had no plans to cut jobs after a major restructure three years ago.
Although her university has not seen student numbers – home or international – fall, as some universities have, it has spent £1m adapting its campus. This includes covered outside areas, automatic taps and doors, screens and altering rooms and other areas for social distancing.
It also topped up pay to 100% for the 15% of staff furloughed and will keep on all staff, contract or not and zero hours on 100% pay to the end of December at least.
At the same time it, like other universities has lost vital income from catering outlets, events, hiring out facilities over the summer and accommodation.
“Universities operate as businesses too but have not had the support the business sector has,” said Professor Aitchison.
Unlike some institutions Cardiff Met has seen student numbers rise – from around 10,800 last year to 11,500 this year and has not lost lucrative overseas students.
However, there are still financial pressures, warned the Vice Chancellor.
“We have still got very high demand from international students. Some could not get in because visa offices in their countries were closed or could not travel because there were no scheduled flights so they are learning online. Our international student numbers aren’t down.
“It would be useful if governments could reflect that universities are also businesses and providers of income. We fall between the public and commercial sector.
“Lost income is undoubtedly going to put pressure on. Universities are run, in many aspects, like businesses but have not see the support businesses have.”