One of the things that multiple universities are saying about September is that the volume of on campus activity will be determined by the health advice / science.
For example, Universities UK says that
as much learning and wider activity will be delivered face-to-face on campus as public health guidance will support.”
That’s an interesting position. Of course it is the case that there won’t be many universities thinking to themselves “well, we could run some more face to face teaching safely, but we’ve decided not to”. And it’s fair to say that prevailing health guidance will be hugely important – cutting the “2 metres” rule in half will certainly come as a relief to many of the campus working groups and timetablers, even if it sends Estates directors into a tape measure tailspin.
Of course, for this to stack up you’d have to believe that there is useful and effective Public Health guidance in the first place. But more broadly, it’s an interesting version of the Government’s “led by” or “guided by” the science. As with Government, it’s a framing that seeks to hide the fact that these decisions are less about science and more about economics, priorities and politics.
For individual students, it’s not only prevailing public health guidance that determines how many contact hours you get. “One thing almost no one understands about higher education finance”, said Canadian higher education expert Alex Usher the other week, “is how much of it depends on the number of hours each student is required to be in front of a teacher every week”.
In Canada, the “theoretical” average “contact” hours a week is 15. For some students on some courses it’s often a lot lower than that in the US and the UK. Compared to Africa/Asia where contact hours are usually 25-30 a week, we assume a lot of the learning should be done by students on their own. The differences in cost are significant.
Contact hours matter. The 2020 iteration of the Advance HE/HEPI Student Academic Experience Survey reminds us that the number of contact hours is correlated strongly to perceptions of fees value – something borne out in SU research too. And this isn’t just about preference or a kind of performative presenteeism – contact hours are correlated to mental health and wellbeing too.
But even pre-pandemic, contact hours were rationed. Few students believe they have enough contact hours and students getting fewer hours than they expected is another major funding from the Student Academic Experience Survey. And there’s no magic formula to the justification for differences between students – it might be because of pedagogy, or year of study, or available space – or even how many students happen to have enrolled this year.
So as the working groups move to comply with OfS guidance and get to the level of detail where an individual applicant can be informed accurately – the fact that social distancing and staff capacity is reducing the overall number of “contact” hours that students can have becomes massively important.
Winners and losers
Once a university works out that not all schools, faculties, departments or course leaders can have the actual hours in spaces they want – who gets prioritised? And why? Will it be based on need – academic or pastoral? Or pedagogy, or year of study? Or whether they’ve paid the most? Will there be a minimum for all students? And do some spaces that used to house social learning now be robbed to provide more formal contact?
It’s a legal issue too. Since the OfS guidance dropped the big “under the surface” row – peeping above the parapet only in things like the comments underneath this blog on the site – has been about “consent”. Can we find a way to legally force students to accept our contact hours cuts? Can we replace synchronous physical contact hours with asynchronous online content and escape the wrath of the regulator?
Sharing is caring
Perhaps most importantly, there’s a real argument that we need to think about shared services, facilities and opportunities that we don’t ration right now. Fresh evidence has emerged of a major “digital divide” on campus, and one of the ways in which we used to “level up” that divide was through PC labs, laptop loans and social learning spaces on campus – most of which have always worked on a “first come, first served” basis. If there’s much less of that to go around – do we need to tighten up to stop those with sharp elbows getting it all?
Same goes for all sorts of things. What if there’s hardly anywhere to sit in September? What if the library has hugely restricted access? What if the number of appointments at the university wellbeing service matters more without a “drop in”? Who gets a seat on the bus to campus, or a parking space, or a slot in the 5 a side tournament, or an hour at the on-campus gym? And if you do ration – how do you develop rules? And on what criteria?
This is crucial because students generally will be furious if both their formal contact hours are slashed and their access to previously easy-to-access shared components is heavily restricted. We already know that some students’ outcomes are worse than others. Let’s have a bet here that part of the reason for that is at least related to those students’ access to the outputs at a university – space, time, services and facilities. If not what on earth were those outputs for?
In other words, if we don’t want to exacerbate existing inequalities, we probably need to be thinking about much more rationing now. If not, we may end up with our own version of “panic buying toilet rolls” over space and facilities in September.