Alarm has been expressed by many commentators at the prevalence of Covid-19 in UK Universities, and on the face of it, the figures do seem to be alarming. For example, the UniCovid UK website that attempts to track the spread of Covid in Universities indicates that, as at October 17th 2020, since the start of term there have been 1650 cases at the University of Manchester and 1522 at the University of Northumbria. This data comes from a variety of sources where it is reported in different ways and needs to be treated with caution, but nonetheless gives a broad indication of the current situation. However these raw figures do not give a real indication of the situation since they do not take into account the size of the institution or the length of time since the start of term, which differs from place to place. To look at this in a little more detail I have carried out the following simple analysis using the UniCovid UK data at October 17th 2020. I have taken the number of reported cases since the start of term at each institution and divided them by the factor (total student population x days since the start of term / 14). This gives a rough approximation of the proportion of students who might currently be expected to have Covid-19, making the assumption that the illness lasts for 14 days. I am very aware of the other implicit assumptions involved in this calculation (the assumption of constant infection rate, the neglect of the different demographic profiles of different universities, different rates of testing and so on), but at least it gives a crude normalization of the data. On this basis, the 30 Universities with the highest percentages of students currently with Covid-19 is shown in the table below.
Now the UniCovid UK web site gives the prevalence of the virus amongst the student age population as between 0.24 and 0.52%. Most of the Universities in the above table lie above the upper bound value, but many not by a great amount (and here the assumptions in the analysis need to be kept in mind). Only twelve exceed a value of greater than 1% of the students having the virus. Whilst for some of these top twelve the situation is clearly very serious, with the proportion of those infected many times the expected levels, the numbers suggest that the issues are localized – and indeed mainly in areas where there are high rates of infection in the wider community.