Publication date: Sep 22, 2023
The aim of this study was to describe the epidemiology of COVID-19 cases at universities in England (October 2020-February 2022) and investigate factors associated with rates of COVID-19 among students during autumn/winter of 2021/22. The study was an observational retrospective study using routine contact tracing data. Estimates of COVID-19 cases among students and staff at universities were described. Student cases aged 18-24 years were calculated as a percentage of all cases within that age group. Count regression was used to explore university characteristics associated with case numbers. We identified 102,382 cases among students and 28,639 among staff. Student cases reflected trends in the wider population of the same age group, but the observed fraction aged 18-24 years who were students was consistently below the expected level (32%). Phased reopening of universities in March-May 2021 was associated with small peaks but low absolute numbers. Russell group membership, campus universities, and higher student proportions in halls of residence were all associated with increased case numbers. COVID-19 case numbers among students in England varied considerably. At no time were the observed case numbers as high as expected from community prevalence. Characteristics of universities associated with higher case rates can inform future guidance for higher education settings.