A union is pushing for urgent talks with a university where more than 750 students have tested positive for Covid-19 as it prepares to ballot members on industrial action.

Northumbria University, in Newcastle, announced on Friday that it was aware of 770 students testing positive – 78 of whom are symptomatic.

The University and College Union (UCU) said many of its 900 members at the university are extremely concerned about the situation, and is demanding that teaching moves online.

UCU regional officer Iain Owens said the union has already begun preparations for a ballot for industrial action which would involve members refusing to take part in all but online teaching.

Mr Owens said he will be writing to the senior management of the university on Monday morning asking for an urgent meeting as he fears the necessary preparations for a ballot will render the process too slow to deal with a fast-moving situation.

He told the PA news agency: “A lot of our members are scared.”

Mr Owens added: “This is a massive outbreak in the student population. It’s a massive outbreak for the city.

“Many students live in the community and people must be wondering about who’s been in the local shops and everything else.

“It was predicted that, if you move 50,000 people into Newcastle from different parts of the country in the middle of a pandemic, there’s going to be serious consequences.”

He said: “I’m going to be writing to the employers first thing on Monday morning to request a meeting.

“We’ll push ahead all-systems-go in terms of a ballot. But that will take some time.”

Mr Owens said the union could not encourage staff to break their employment contracts but he said some staff may take an individual decision to “down tools” if they believe themselves to be in danger.

He said he also feared for staff at neighbouring Newcastle University where dozens of cases had already been reported despite students returning much later than at Northumbria.

Northumbria University has clarified that the 770 figure represents the cumulative number of students who have reported testing positive since they started to return to university for the start of term in mid-September.

Those affected have been advised to self-isolate in line with national guidance.

The university said that the new self-reported cases on Friday totalled 78 – the lowest daily figure for five days which a spokesman described as “encouraging”.

In response to the UCU’s proposed action, a university spokesman said: “The health, safety and wellbeing of our students and staff remains our highest priority.

“Our arrangements for teaching have been designed cautiously and are in line with the Department for Education’s Tier 2 guidance, a key aim of which is to retain face-to-face teaching where it is clearly beneficial to students and is possible to do so safely.

“The Government’s expectation that universities continue to deliver a blended learning approach under the current restrictions was recently reaffirmed by both the Prime Minister and minister of state for universities Michelle Donelan.

“We will therefore continue to offer a mix of online remote learning with face-to-face teaching on campus for smaller groups under appropriate social distancing measures.”

The spokesman said that many staff continue to work from home where possible and the university had put in place a full range of safety measures across the campus.

He said: “The arrangements, which are in line with government and sector guidance, have been discussed at weekly meetings with UCU, Unison and faculty management teams and shared with all staff in regular updates from the vice-chancellor.

“We are reassured that our risk assessments and mitigation arrangements put in place to ensure the campus is safe are robust.”