At least 20,000 students have had coronavirus since the start of term, a new analysis has found.
It comes as a union boss said she backs lecturers to ballot for strike action if vice-Chancellors fail to heed their concerns about face-to-face learning.
Universities are facing growing pressure to move lessons online, with the University and College Union (UCU) launching a new petition demanding that in-person classes are axed "where possible".
The union has examined all the published figures of Covid-19 cases at universities and found that there have been 20,874 reported positive tests.
Newcastle University has the most with 1,770, followed by Nottingham with 1,728 then Manchester with 1,664.
Jo Grady, general secretary of the UCU said that union branches across the country are likely to follow the lead of staff Northumbria University who balloted for strike action amid a row with over moving lectures online.
“If they feel it is very unsafe, many will do what Northumbria University staff did and take a vote on whether they have confidence in management to ballot for industrial action,” she told The Telegraph.
“I don’t think staff will be left with any choice. If they feel their health and safety concerns are not being listened to, of course we would support them to take action to support themselves.”
Close to a quarter of a million students across the country are now being taught online. In recent weeks Liverpool, Liverpool John Moores, Liverpool Hope, Newcastle, Northumbria, Sheffield, Manchester and Manchester Metropolitan universities have all taken the same step meaning that around 216,000 students are now taking their degrees from the confines of their bedroom.
A Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies document from September 21 suggested moving all college and university teaching online unless face-to-face teaching was "essential".
But addressing the Commons on Monday, universities minister Michelle Donelan said the Government did not believe it would be right to put the lives and "the academic journeys of students on hold".
Last week the university watchdog issued a warning over online learning as it says it will fine institutions which fail to deliver for students.
Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the Office for Students, said it is “vital” that universities “honour the promises” they made to students when they applied. She said that the regulator is “actively monitoring” the standard of online degrees, adding that where teaching moves online, universities must ensure that quality remains high.
The watchdog said it will investigate any complaints it receives about the quality of online learning, adding that it has the power to issue fines if it finds that universities have breached their conditions of registration.