Northumbria leaders said students without Covid could still attend classes in person and use shared facilities such as libraries, despite the size of the outbreak.
Andrew Wathey, vice-chancellor of the university, told staff in an email: “On Friday we can confirm that we know of 770 students at the University of Northumbria who have tested positive for Covid-19, including 78 were symptomatic. These students are all now self-isolated.
“There are a number of reasons people have been tested and I want to assure you that the vast majority of these students are not sick.
“Their roommates and close contacts are also self-isolating for 14 days as per government guidelines and have been urged to contact NHS 119 to book testing as soon as possible if symptoms appear.”
He said 11 staff members had tested positive and were self-isolating.
The University of Newcastle has also reported an increase in infections, saying 94 students and seven staff have tested positive.
The two universities issued a joint statement saying their Covid response teams were trying to trace all staff and students who had come into contact with those infected, as well as helping the hundreds of isolated students with de food and other supports, including mental health services.
Newcastle City Council said it was working to manage the outbreak, in a “joint gold group” involving universities, local authorities and Public Health England.
Northumbria staff said his university had aggressively insisted on in-person classes for the majority of students. Last month, branches of the University and College Union (UCU) in Newcastle and Northumbria said they had “serious concerns” about the universities’ plans to deal with the outbreaks.
Jo Grady, UCU General Secretary, said, “We told Northumbria University that they have a civic duty to put the health of staff, students and the local community first and we let us take no pleasure in seeing another preventable crisis unfold. The academic sector and government must immediately tackle this public health crisis.
A Northumbria staff member told PA Media that classes were often half full because many students were already staying away. “We have high anxiety levels among staff and students who feel that the institution is not listening to these anxieties about face-to-face teaching,” the staff member said. “There is a lot of frustration because almost everything we deliver face to face could be done much more securely online.”
But Wathey said the size of the outbreak – larger than those seen in UK factories or other individual institutions – “reflects good access and availability of testing, as well as rigorous and robust reporting systems.”
The vice-chancellor said that where the universities had started their mandate earlier, “the number of student cases increased during the integration week, then decreased”.
New reports of infections at universities including Nottingham Trent and Bournemouth have brought the total number of universities with confirmed cases to 65 in just over two weeks.
In Scotland, the Universities of Edinburgh and Edinburgh Napier have reported more than 300 confirmed cases among their students, while the University of Glasgow has more than 170 and the University of Aberdeen has reported 99 cases.
In England, the University of Manchester announced 221 cases among students and staff just 10 days after the university reopened for the new academic year.
At nearby Manchester Metropolitan University, UCU members passed a motion calling on Vice Chancellor Malcolm Press to step down over his allegedly ‘failed’ handling of the coronavirus outbreak, after more than 1,500 students were sentenced to solitary confinement.
The University of Sheffield has registered more than 200 cases since the start of the week, including 91 positive tests among its students as of Thursday alone.