The risk of Covid-19 transmission is greater in student halls and houses than in classrooms and lecture theatres, research suggests.
The largest outbreaks occurred in halls of residences at several universities in England during the autumn term, according to a report from the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
Data from the universities of Exeter and Loughborough suggest that the number of Covid-19 cases among the student population rose steeply after the start of the term, but they fell during November.
In Exeter, university students make up the majority of recorded cases in the area during late September and early October.
But the ONS report concludes that there is not enough evidence to be certain whether infections spread from the wider population into the student population or whether the arrival of students had an impact on the rising levels of Covid-19 in the wider community.
Data from universities in England show the risk of transmission was higher in settings like student houses, and larger outbreaks occurred in halls of residence.
— Office for National Statistics (ONS) (@ONS) December 21, 2020
The findings have been published after university students in England were permitted to travel back to their family homes for the Christmas period between December 3 and December 9.
Universities have been told to stagger the return of students over five weeks in the new year to reduce the transmission of Covid-19.
Medical students and those on placements or practical courses with a need for in-person teaching in England can return to campus from January 4, but remaining students should be offered online lessons from the start of term and should only return gradually from January 25, the guidance says.
Bringing together information gathered at a number of English universities, the ONS researchers found the risk of transmission to be greater in residential settings at universities, with “minimal evidence found of the virus being spread in face-to-face teaching settings such as classrooms and lecture theatres”.
Figures from the Student Covid Insights Survey, carried out by the ONS once in October and twice in November, suggest that students follow Covid-19 guidance in much the same way as the general public.
Nine out of 10 students said they always or very frequently tried to keep a two-metre distance from people outside of their university household, which is consistent with the Opinions and Lifestyle Survey for the general population.
However, students were more likely not to have left their home or accommodation in the seven days prior to being surveyed in November (around three in 10) than the general public (fewer than one in 10).
On the findings, Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) think tank, said: “It highlights the fact that most students have done their utmost to behave sensibly in line with the guidance.
“It also serves a powerful reminder that face-to-face teaching is not as dangerous as people originally thought when due care is taken.”
Professor Julia Buckingham, president of Universities UK (UUK) and vice-chancellor of Brunel University, London, said: “Universities and government both recognise the importance of face-to-face teaching, learning and support for students’ education and their mental health.
“It is reassuring to see that the new ONS report backs up universities’ own findings, showing that there is minimal evidence of Covid-19 transmission in face-to-face learning environments at universities, such as classrooms.”
She added: “Most universities will be continuing to provide a blended approach for students next term, with as much in-person and on-campus teaching, learning and support as possible.
“The safety of our students and staff will continue to be our top priority and universities will of course continue to follow the latest government guidance and review their approaches based on the available evidence.”