This article is more than 4 years old

Coronavirus and protecting students’ interests

This article is more than 4 years old

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

This is a briefing for Wonkhe SUs subscribers.

The situation surrounding COVID-19 is moving rapidly – and there’s a material chance that any briefing will be out of date as soon as we hit “publish” in wordpress.

Right now we’re in the “contain” phase of the strategy – and that means that universities (and schools, for example) are not being required to close. But the Government has announced that it is preparing to move to the next phase of its response to the outbreak.

“Contain” means trying to stop COVID-19 being transmitted inside the country. Boris Johnson has already said that it is “extremely unlikely to work on its own” and “extensive preparations” are underway to move to the “delay” phase to slow the virus’ spread. It’s in the later stages where measures to delay the virus’ spread with “social distancing” could be introduced, with obvious implications for educational establishments.

And England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty has warned that “we are now very close” to instructing anyone who has “even minor respiratory tract infections or a fever” to self-isolate for a week.

10/03/19: Initial publication

Could closure spread?

As well as the virus itself spreading, university practice might spread too. Even if the government doesn’t require it yet, one of the things that may happen is that a university in the UK breaks ranks and decided to follow the lead of a number of US universities. Harvard is canceling in-person classes, and other universities from California to New York have closed campus classrooms.

Cancellations have been focused in states and areas hardest hit by the virus, including the Seattle area, California and New York. Ohio State University, which has an enrollment of more than 60,000 students, has also announced it is closing classrooms. Clearly having decent edtech investments helps here – and not all universities are in that kind of position.

In any event, on the assumption that the current arrangements are in place for at least the next few weeks, we thought we’d round up the sorts of issues we hear that SUs are talking to their institutions about surrounding COVID-19 and its implications.

1. Student hardship

Lots of universities are considering self-isolation from the perspective of academic implications – but for many students on 0 hours contracts or topping up maintenance loans in the gig economy, there are obvious financial implications too. The Government has said that no-one should be penalised for “doing the right thing” but has pointed to Employment Support Allowance and Universal Credit changes as solutions – not helpful for students.

Universities are major employers of students – are they willing to pay sick pay to students? Will they help SUs to do the same for their employers? And are hardship funds being ramped up to ensure that students who should self-isolate do so, safe in the knowledge that there is a financial cushion if they do?

2. Teaching

We already know that almost all universities’ contracts with students would exempt them from compensation claims on the basis that the virus is a “force majeure” event – we’re in a similar situation to the strike here. That said, to rely on an FM clause, a university has to demonstrate that it has done all it can to make up for any loss of service.

If particular academics delivering teaching or supervision have to self-isolate, what is the university’s plan to attempt to make up for those lost learning opportunities?

3. Online?

One touted solution to many of the issues is edtech – either extending (or enforcing) its current usage, or rapidly buying in new systems. This isn’t simple though – and there’s a great blog here on problems with the “edtech pivot” that outlines many of the obvious issues.

It makes lots of sense to be asking about these issues now:

  • Are the systems to deliver teaching in place?
  • Do staff (and students) know how to use them?
  • Is there an interaction with the strike?
  • Does the university know which courses can (and cannot) move online?

4. Assessment

In some senses teaching is the easy bit – it’s assessment that gets difficult. Far fewer universities are “ready” to deliver exams online than teaching online, for example. And we are perilously close to the end of term now to be considering shifting large quantities of module credit from exams to, say, essays or project work.

What is the university’s plan on exams if they are not allowed to be held?

5. Other aspects of T&L

It’s tempting for obvious reasons to focus on two major components – teaching and assessment. But so much of the student experience is about independent study. How about collaborative assessment and project work between students? How will supervision work at a distance? What if fieldwork gets disrupted? And how will students access the library – if they are allowed to at all?

6. Academic compensation

Generally, the OIA tends to argue that (for example) if a student can’t sit an exam due to mitigating circumstances that it is sometimes appropriate to assess a student’s final grade by looking at everything else that they have done or completed.

Clearly individual academic programmes and university regulations will differ – and a university is always required to assess whether a student has reached a theoretical collection of academic standards.

But the big questions to ask here are whether entire components of modules or courses – especially where there has been either a lack of teaching (via the strike, self-isolating academics, students having self-isolate or classes not being allowed to run during “delay”) or a lack of assessment (for similar reasons) will simply be discounted.

Resolving these issues early and communicating clearly to students will obviously be important.

7. Mitigating or extenuating circumstances

It seems pretty obvious that self-isolating students may need to submit extenuating circumstances. But the usual codified standards of proof (ie a doctor’s note) may be much more difficult to obtain than usual.

It is well worth going through the OIA’s general consultation on extenuating circumstances and applying a coronavirus lens to many of the issues. Fort example – many policies list that won’t be taken into account like “technical issues”, “financial hardship” or “employment-related pressures”. But these may all manifest as a result of self-isolation. And do bear in mind that students who are parents or carers may not be self-isolating themselves but may have to support others.

Crucially policies usually say that students should only be given special consideration for circumstances that are “unexpected”. Clarifying for students how that might be interpreted or adapted in this situation is crucial.

8. Support services

We’ve seen lots of discussion about teaching – not so much on other types of services that the university in theory offers. There are major “behind the scenes” issues – marking, exam boards, etc that students will need clarification on.

Graduation ceremonies – particularly those in the early part of the summer – may be affected and that is worth an exploratory conversation.

But probably of bigger concern to students are support services like mental health, counselling and careers. In theory universities should attempt to make up for anything not delivered that has been promised. Teaching and assessment may be the obvious priority but (for example) final year students looking for CV support, or students with counselling appointments could all be affected. Any student facing student services may need contingency plans or alternatives to be put in place.

9. Placements

On many courses there are major external accreditation issues surrounding placements. You’ll want to know now how the university will deal with the impact of any workplace closures, mentor absence, etc. for those students.

You should also bear in mind that students on years abroad or on assessed placements remain the responsibility of the university – and will want assurances that there are appropriate liaisons in place with partners and providers to both assess what they are doing, and to protect students and their interests. Nursing students in particular may be placed under intolerable pressure and may be at unacceptable risk. You’ll want to both clarify their rights and remove the threat of them not passing their course or placement.

10. PGRs that teach

There’s some obvious questions here. Do they follow guidance for staff or students? In terms of cancellation of classes, this will have a direct financial impact on them – will the university pay them regardless for the time they were to prepare/teach? And will the university offer them the same assurances it does salaried staff to encourage them to self isolate rather than worry about loss of income?

11. Wash your hands

This might sound silly, but there’s plenty of uni toilets we’ve been in where there’s no soap. If hand washing for 20 seconds several times a day is key to stopping the spread, is that actually possible on campus? What is the university doing to increase the supply of soap or hand sanitizer?

12. Housing

Finally, as we said last week, universities are being advised that they “may wish to be told” that a student is self-quarantining in provider owned accommodation. We think that it would be wise for SUs to be discussing with their university the range of accommodation that students occupy to discuss advice to students and practical information – “self isolation” might make sense in a family home, but HMO landlords and/or private providers may react in highly problematic ways.

Read more:


On Friday 13th (!) we held a quick webinar with SUs on the Covid-19 crisis and ran through many of the issues above.

Here’s some of the additional things that were raised:

  1. Many unions – especially those with substantial commercial operations – are already seeing significantly reduced footfall and cancellations. A number are talking to their university about any available financial cushion.
  2. The Government announced yesterday that future measures to control the spread of the disease could include stricter self-isolation arrangements, where if one household member falls ill, the entire household is asked to stay home for 14 days. It is worth considering how this would affect students in halls (both university and private) and HMOs.
  3. People with symptoms are no longer required to call NHS 111, as the system is under strain, but are instead urged to look for information on the NHS website and 111 online. Is the university ready and able to “shift the needle of trust” here to accept students self-isolating?
  4. Moving teaching and assessment online – lots of effort is going into staff development and course adaption, but do students have the equipment, software or broadband connections they need?
  5. iLoveTour is making announcements here. We understand an announcement will be made re Croatia later today.
  6. Some students – especially from particular countries – may be getting problematic messages about the UK Government’s handling of the virus. It is worth talking to international offices and comms teams about messaging – and keeping that messaging regularly updated as FAQs off the back of questions in.
  7. There are complex questions re staff willingness to undertake work required to move online, modify courses etc esp where the strike has been on. We expect a UCU update later today after the NEC meeting.
  8. In some cases large scale changes are being made – for example automatically progressing first year students. Note the stumbling blocks here often concern externally accredited courses and it’s crucial students don’t rely on inappropriately blanket messaging.
  9. There are still a number of SU elections to run. SUs are advised to carefully check governing document requirements but most are moving as much as possible online. We await news re NUS Conference.
  10. Some SUs are considering (and testing) which of their staff can WFH and move services online.
  11. This is the time of year when lecture theatres empty but libraries fill up. Even if exams and end of year assessments go “offline”, what’s the plan for the major study areas on campus?


With the majority of universities now having announced that they are moving to online teaching, and making the necessary arrangements for alternatives to exams, thoughts are turning to wider issues.

There are looming major issues for universities in relation to September – both in terms of recruitment and practical delivery of the completion of this academic year – but for now a number of SUs have been raising more practical issues:

  1. A number of SUs have been discussing remote delivery of pastoral and careers services, as well as identifying the services they themselves may need to move online. Slowly, accreditation bodies for externally accredited courses are beginning to liaise with HEIs especially where there are assessed placement components.
  2. As the global airline industry goes into shutdown, a number of SUs have been raising questions re international students that (sensibly) choose to return home. There are also issues to raise for students who are unable to get home, or who may be delaying trying to get home because of fears re teaching and assessment.
  3. There are ever-present concerns for international students and immigrattion. The Home Office has relaxed requirements here, but in a number of cases universities have not clearly communicated how they might be implementing these relaxations. You will want to clarify the approach to attendance monitoring – particularly if it interacts with students being unable to return home.
  4. As the end of term (and therefore the end of accommodation contracts) looms, a number of SUs have been thinking about implications for students (both home and crucially international) where a student can’t return home, including discussing the provision of university operated housing.
  5. Following the NUS piece on Wonkhe, a number of SUs have been discussing hardship funds to support students whose (employment or other) funding is disrupted, or whose costs rise unexpectedly – including the ability to make applications for such funding remotely. Some are discussing payments for casual staff or PGRs that teach.
  6. As SUs are separate charities, there are major issues to consider in relation to financial viability, reserves, income etc. A number of SUs have begun to discuss any available financial cushions. For those who insure with it, Endsleigh has published a briefing on its cover.

New blogs on Wonkhe:

Let us know if you have other thoughts/questions or pop them in the W/A chat.

Leave a Reply