All university teaching and learning should be provided online until the end of the current term to avoid a repeat of outbreaks which afflicted campuses last autumn, the sector's largest union has said.

The call from the University and College Union (UCU) comes amid growing concern over a new, fast-spreading Covid-19 variant which has already resulted in Scotland's schools shifting to remote learning until at least January 29. 

The union issued the demand in light of the First Minister’s “stay at home” lockdown message set out on Monday, and has provided its views to the Scottish Government. 

The minister for higher education, Richard Lochhead, wrote to the sector consulting on the guidance for students returning to campuses and saying that the return would now be delayed. 

Under the current guidance limited face to face teaching can start on campuses from January 11.

UCU bosses said that the new variant of the virus, and the experience of universities in the autumn when there were outbreaks of Covid-19 in student accommodation halls across the country, meant that the Scottish Government should act decisively and take the immediate decision for all teaching, support and university activities to be carried out online and remotely until the end of term.

UCU’s Scotland official Mary Senior said: “University students and staff need urgent clarity that the First Minister’s ‘stay at home’ message applies to them too.  

"When schools across Scotland and the UK are closed as a very last resort due to the global pandemic, it is bizarre that current rules allow teaching and learning on campus, with students and staff travelling potentially across the UK to participate.   

"The Scottish Government needs to do all it can to limit travelling and mixing of students and staff, and so must regrettably put all learning and student support online for the time being and for the whole of this term.

“We saw in September and October the significant outbreaks on campus when students and staff returned for the autumn term. 

"We cannot allow this to happen at this perilous stage of the pandemic.  

"Ministers must act quickly and decisively and limit the opportunities for universities to be vectors of this virus again.  UCU is calling for all learning and student support to be online now.”