The university’s Tinbergen building will be evacuated from Monday morning after extensive deposits of asbestos were uncovered early last week. University authorities have said that the teaching of those studying some science degrees will be severely disrupted, and that it is ‘unlikely’ that students will have a full set of practical classes this year.
Authorities said that there was no reason to believe that people had been exposed to asbestos particles, but that they could not be completely certain. Prof William James, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Planning and Resources, said that his team is “as sure as we can be” that the building’s occupants have not come to any harm.
The announcement that the building would have to be shut was made in a staff meeting at 1pm on Friday afternoon. Prof James said that discoveries in the previous few days meant that the level of asbestos in the building had “gone over a critical threshold”.
Students who are taught at the building received an email saying, “We immediately want to reassure you that we do not believe there is, or has been, a health risk to ordinary users of the building…regrettably we do not expect the building to reopen for around two years.”
Labelling the disruption “really non-trivial”, Prof James said that the building would be closed off indefinitely. He also said that there is a possibility the building will have to be demolished, stating “we don’t know what the long term solution is at this point.”
He further advised that teaching would be disrupted for the remainder of the academic year, particularly for those studying Biochemistry. He stressed that lectures would be rearranged by Monday morning, but that some practical classes could no longer be provided.
It was emphasised that students should not worry about the completion of their degrees, and that exam regulations can be amended so that the completion of practical classes will no longer be mandatory. Prof James said that final degree marks could be extrapolated from classes that students have already completed.
However, he also said that the same quality of education could not be guaranteed during this academic year, because it is unlikely that crucial laboratory facilities can be replaced quickly.
Students were promised that all courses would be “running well” by Michaelmas. It was noted that the university was sensitive to high stakes exams, and that every effort would be made to ensure that teaching takes place somewhere in the city, with the Museum of Natural History mentioned as a possible location.
The Tinbergen building was opened in 1970 when asbestos was a widely used construction material. The university was always aware of the presence of the material, but was previously satisfied that it was well contained.
Refurbishment works in August uncovered asbestos at the rear of the building that had not previously been noted, and contractors have since been engaged to assess the prevalence of the substance in different parts of the structure.
A search of heating facilities in the building early this week uncovered extensive deposits that had not previously been noticed. Although the deposits were not airborne, it was deemed that they would have to be removed, and that this work could not be carried out in an occupied building.
Prof James said the university had no knowledge of similar difficulties in other buildings, and that the significant cost of the works would not cause resources to be diverted from other areas. He emphasised that safety is the authorities’ first priority, and said that “the cost is whatever it is”.