Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

The days are getting longer. The vaccination programme is going very well. Infection rates, hospitalisations and transmission rates are all trending down. The papers say we’ll soon be allowed to meet people on park benches and play tennis.

So now attention in higher education must turn to how this term ends, and what happens in the summer to make up for what has been lost.

Universities across the UK should expect some imminent relaxation of the restrictions currently placed on the delivery of higher education. Depending on what is announced, that creates some significant outstanding questions about how this year will end that need addressing quickly.

If the answers only extend as far as graduating as many students as possible as quickly as possible and hoping for some easy return to normality in September, we’ll let students down. But if these questions are answered with ingenuity and creativity, and some clear demands on government to support those ideas, there’s a chance that the year can end on a note of optimism.

The halls and the fortune

Let’s look first at the housing problem. Most large universities run or at least operate their own halls, have some students in private halls, have others in HMOs and look after a good proportion of commuters.

In university-run rooms, most providers have delivered a version of the “rebate for not being there” principle – until the student is “invited” back, they won’t be charged rent. As the weeks have gone on, this has generated comparison problems for those in the private sector, but we are where we are – which in England, is Michelle Donelan fancifully “urging” landlords to have students’ “best interests at heart”.

A lot of those students that have been asked to stay away are on courses that universities have maintained can be successfully delivered online. The experience might not be as great, goes the line, but the learning objectives have been being successfully met.

That all begs a big question – even if the government in your nation relaxes the restrictions between now and the end of June, why would you invite anyone back? There’s still a pandemic. Halls were the centre of the infection and transmission problem last year. Are the mooted mental health benefits enough when balanced against the still-present risks that refilling halls represent?

I ain’t gained nothing yet

Much of the problem is that by the time the restrictions are relaxed, the real reason for being “present” on a campus – face to face teaching – is pretty much complete for the year in most universities. Students might have missed out on labs, libraries, studios, field trips and sports clubs – but teaching is all but over, and exams are almost all being run online this year anyway.

Some students do need to return to spend some time in the lab or the studio because doing so is directly related to their learning outcomes. But access to that sort of provision is still going to need to be carefully rationed. So even if there were lots of highly practical sessions for the students that need them, if given the option it would probably be cheaper for them to get an Airbnb while doing it than to pay halls rent.

For those without practical components, there still won’t be a “normal” campus even after Easter. Teaching will still be blended, and in that blend, there will hardly be any face to face teaching. And what there is will still be mainly optional – because people might be self-isolating, and it was previously said that all this could be done online.

International students that aren’t yet in the country (either at all or following a return home over Christmas) complicate things further. If they are “required” back, they’re now two more weeks, £1,700 and two PCR tests further away from being ready to be present and in-person thanks to the new hotel quarantine rules. And if they are not “required” back, why would home students be?

Once we work back from there, the calls from students to be able to exit expensive rental accommodation contracts will only grow further – particularly from those that haven’t really been on campus at all this year. There will be serious injustices if that problem is not fixed in the private sector – but surely universities can’t hold the line that rent rebates in their own accommodation now stop just because the restrictions have been relaxed a bit?

Playing games in the rain

Readers of The Observer might have seen that Andrew Rawnsley recently noted that there’s suddenly a lot of interest in Tory circles in the work of Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel prize-winning psychologist and behaviouralist:

They are attracted to the professor’s thesis about how people recall difficult periods in their lives they disproportionately remember, and therefore place the greatest weight, on how a harrowing episode came to an end. The contention is that even a deeply grim crisis can be thought of positively if the conclusion to it is an uplifting one.

For higher education, the more general problem right now is that we are crawling towards a grim end to the pandemic for students and their families – having spent tens of thousands on rent contracts they never needed, suffered significant experience loss and given the runaround on proper redress to any of it.

Just as the wider country starts prepping for a happier Easter, it will look like we’re pushing final and single year students out of the door, “on time”, to “kick start their careers” – but in reality, they’ll feel dumped into a hostile employment market. And all without a graduation ceremony, summer ball, final year show or credible career experience.

If Kahneman is right, this will be a generation of students that really will never forgive their university or the government. And that matters in the long term.

Got me fooled again

So how do we put this right? The single most popular solution to the problem mooted by students is a fee refund. I won’t go over here the myriad reasons why that simple idea is more complex and less helpful than it looks – suffice to say that whatever the subsidies of the loan scheme for some students, it’s surely precisely because we have created a system that requires individual contributions that now that the individual benefits haven’t all been delivered, that we should now reduce the contributions.

Of course it is the case that raw demands for fee rebates from already stretched university budgets sit uneasily alongside the level of extra cost and effort it’s taken to deliver what we managed this year. But of course it’s also the case that whoever’s fault it all is, students have been sold something they’ve not had, and in many cases rented property to be somewhere they didn’t need to be. Even where teaching has moved online, nobody seriously believes that the whole student experience, or even the whole student learning experience, is delivered through teaching alone.

Yet for all that, if it is the case that students have lost things that matter, fee refunds wouldn’t be where I would start. Home domiciled students in Scotland will have lost things that matter too. It’s making up for what’s been lost that really matters.

There are no easy answers – and nor do I think it’s especially productive at this stage to try to identify whose fault it all is when I can see culpability everywhere. The point is that it can only now be fixed by central government generally, and the Treasury specifically. So what the sector says next on what is and isn’t possible or desirable matters, and my worry is that it will make the same mistake it has been making all year – that of primarily trying to fill the blanks on the year that was sold back then, rather than directly address the problems students face right now.

I don’t want to be late (though I hate this place)

Imagine if the central question facing the sector wasn’t “how do we justify students being back face to face”. And for those that don’t need the rental income, imagine we also rejected “so we’re basically keeping the campus closed for another seven months”.

Ideally, the question should be: “what do students need right now and in the period between now and the start of the next academic year”. If we start from there, a different kind of evaluation emerges for what should happen in between Easter and the new year.

Let’s first agree that any course with placements, studios, labs, trips, practicals and big final year projects or shows or exhibitions is in trouble – with the most acute issues being faced by students on single year taught programmes or in the final year of a multiple-year course. Space and time are needed to make these practical things happen – so if restriction relaxation allows it, universities should prioritise it.

For prospective students, real damage has been done to their learning experience and perhaps their mental health. BTECs, Highers and A level grades will be issued – but no-one seriously believes that anyone’s results will be meaningfully comparable to a normal year. We overestimate how “ready” students are for higher education as it is. This year universities are going to need to carve time over the summer to properly understand incoming students’ needs, work out where they’re behind in multiple ways, allow them to familiarise themselves with the institution, and help them to rebuild social connections and study skills.

For graduating students, the need to spend time with employers and consider their learning and skills is vital. Employers will need to believe that it is worth investing time and money in graduates – that today’s students can help their organisations and businesses grow post-pandemic. To enable that, we’ll need to see activities and events over the summer that allow students to demonstrate their creativity, passion and confidence. The sector will need to provide not just records of achievement, but platforms on which they can make things happen.

For continuing students, whatever happens on tuition fees and rent – universities owe them the experiences we said they’d get. This isn’t a romantic optional extra – it’s the stuff that’s central to the higher education experience they need to thrive in a post-pandemic world.

Depending on the restrictions in place at the time, there’s an opportunity to nationally and centrally pump SUs and student-facing professional services with the resource to take advantage of the weather and the optimism – rebuilding and reactivating sport and student activities, getting students healthy again, enabling them to form and rekindle friendships and find housemates, and letting this year’s One World Week and Varsity and the student-led teaching awards happen again (albeit without hugs).

A proper programme of structured mitigations should be in place – not necessarily extra teaching, but things like deadline shifting and moving exams back would make lots of sense. Universities should give students some confidence that they’ll see and use the library books they paid for access to, and give them the time to prepare for exams and complete the primary research they curtailed for their dissertation.

I got my debts to pay for (free me from this race)

All of this will need careful handling. But allowing students on practical courses to spend some time in the studio and the lab is really going to matter. The final year “exhibition” of skills and knowledge and outputs and confidence has never mattered more if it can be made to happen. If shorter field trips can be salvaged, and even the odd month abroad can replace a promised year abroad, that will be a better exit than nothing.

PGR students are going to need some properly funded extensions – ARPA may have to wait a year while the government does right by the group of students that everyone forgets. And students on taught programmes will need some catch-up support – maybe that’s a good way to give something back to already struggling PGR students while academic staff take a well-earned rest.

There are lots of other ways to put things right. We might offer students another course later in life at the time of their choosing. We could offer resources to create start-up companies, give them opportunities to work on projects or events at the university or in the community for a while, or support them to study in or teach at a university overseas.

So what happens now? Where did you go?

Yes, thought will need to be given to how all that marking’s going to get done, and the start of the next academic year may even need to be pushed back a bit. Yes, home students will need a summer top up on their maintenance loan (especially for final year UGs in England and Wales whose loan gets chopped). Yes, most staff will need the chance to take some proper time off. Yes, we’ll need to get the immigration and accommodation arrangements right.

And yes – there’s a chance that this might end up not being safe or wise, depending on the R rate and the general progress of the pandemic and the vaccination effort. But there are now only two options – plan now to address the needs of new, continuing and graduating students, or don’t.

On the basis that it’s probably unsafe and unwise to try and lock up or abandon people in their early twenties until October, a huge, student-led, mainly outdoor festival of higher education activities and opportunities is almost certainly what students need to happen this summer.

Another end to this year is possible.

3 responses to “Another end to this year is possible

  1. Some good points, but a month-long trip abroad with two weeks of quarantine in both directions (and paid for at least in the UK)? That is not a practical proposition.

  2. Some institutions are contemplating extending the acadmic year to allow final year project and dissertation students time to manufacture/perform experiments before a write-up deadline further down the line. This may mean a shorter summer break for academics but it will only impact technical staff a bare minimum as workshops and labs won’t need as much maintenance and admin throughout the summer. Logically extending the academic year to July and then postponing next year by a month would be the optimum solution.

  3. At the risk of… Jim, do you actually think that we’re not thinking about this stuff all the time, and came to the key conclusions about campus access months ago? It’s not simple, but we have plans, contingency plans, alternative contingency plans… The government may not care much about how we meet the needs of students, and it’s questionable whether the OfS does based on recent behaviour – but universities seriously do!

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