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Can students and universities squeeze through the pitfalls of the pandemic?

As the country prepares for new restrictions, Jim Dickinson wonders whether and how students and their universities will be able to squeeze through ever inflating pressures on time, money and health.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

For a few months now working in and around higher education has felt like being in the world’s slowest moving car crash.

They lost control of the wheel ages ago, and you’re not sure who “they” is anyway. You can see what’s coming, and the big skid began a while back – but for all sorts of reasons you can’t stop, and you daren’t steer into it.

You’re sat in the back, thinking it’s OK. Someone will grab the wheel. The scientists, or the government, or the local authority, or the VC or someone. But they never do. And then September comes, and all you can do is make sure your seatbelt is on.

This is it! I love you!

And then, when you survive it, it turns out that we do have to expect the odd crash you know. We are in unprecedented times, after all. If anything, this was part of the plan.

Here and now

The thing about these command and control meetings that look at what happened yesterday, discuss what’s happening today and if you’re lucky spend five minutes at the end looking at tomorrow, is that you never really get chance to look at next week, next month or next year.

And when you’ve been doing that since March, you’re running on fumes and all of your focus is on the “now”, that’s how you end up in the media defending selling self-isolating students that can’t get a food delivery pot noodles and pizza, and all for the low low price of much much more than that student’s likely share of the government’s £256m magic money twig.

Some are thinking as far ahead as December, and how on earth the end of term is going to work if students really do have to self-isolate en-mass for two weeks. Some are panicking because they’ve put some face to face components off until after Christmas even though it’s been obvious for months that Santa’s not bringing a vaccine. But let’s set aside Christmas for a minute.

We are now just three months away from the next “great migration” of students to university towns and cities in January – and this time around the sector’s hoping that a whole wedge of international students will either start, or arrive having completed this term online. Are we really just going to do what we just did, only with slightly better comms? Is that the plan? Or can we learn lessons from what has happened so far this term?

We did our best

Part of the problem with reviewing the term – especially bang smack in the middle of it – is that it’s hard to judge if it’s been a resounding success or an abject failure. It’s even harder to resist being dragged into reductive “unions v management” debates that demand you join the team that says “we did our best, it’s all fine, hold your nerve” or the team that says “our best was never going to be enough and it’s all awful”.

That’s partly because none of us really know right now what an acceptable standard of anything is, leaving us endlessly trapped listening to rolling news with middle-ranking junior ministers telling us that things might not be world-beating but this is an unprecedented situation and everyone has tried very hard and it’ll all be better tomorrow.

We’re doing the same in higher education over the standard of leadership and the standard of provision. I’m generally a fanboi of the OIA, but just look for example at the rock and hard place on display here:

Even in these challenging times, providers need to deliver teaching and learning opportunities and other services that are consistent with students’ reasonable expectations. What students can reasonably expect, and what providers can reasonably be expected to deliver, changes and evolves as circumstances change and evolve and we are witnessing this right now.

That’s right! Meet the expectations! Expect when it’s not reasonable to do so. But be reasonable about it!

OfS is at it too:

Our universities and colleges have been working hard and in unprecedented circumstances to deliver a mix of in-person, online and blended learning this term. They are often making rapid changes to how they deliver their courses as a result of changing public health advice – taking necessary steps to deliver good quality, properly resourced, online learning. But in doing so it is vital that they honour the promises they made to students when they applied and that the quality of what is on offer online remains high.”

That’s right! It’s all chaos! Do your best, which might not be good enough. But keep your promises. OR ELSE.

There’s also the problem of being accused of causing (or at least aiding and abetting) community harm. Are we causing a spike? Making it worse? Maybe, but no-one’s able to agree on how to judge it, or even if the harm is actually… harmful.

Count me in

On paper (and in the paper) it looks like student cities are a problem. On Friday the Times reported that infection rates in student areas are five times higher than elsewhere, analysis which suggests that universities are amplifying the epidemic – and DK has the graphs to prove it. So if students and universities are now being repeatedly blamed for large spikes in urban areas, will there be a strategic reset? Depends.

You might be on the team that thinks students have “caused” the spike and should be “sent home”, and maybe you’re on the team that thinks students shouldn’t be “blamed” or penalised for their living conditions. Maybe you just agree with SAGE, who said that students in cities would probably amplify the virus. But even then you’ve got to pick a side. Was SAGE’s dodgy modelling a prediction whose implications were to be managed, or a warning to be heeded with a halt to the great migration?

What would be nice would be some data, and DK has been doing our best, but even then. We can’t agree how to collect it, we don’t have consistent dashboards to display it, and anyway what are we comparing against for prevalence? Total number of students? Total number in halls or HMOs? Total number in halls?

Even if we were counting, there’s an alarming volume of disincentives for students to even get tested – and even if they do if they’ve used a Pillar 2 “NHS Test and Trace” facility (private sector, usually staffed by squaddies) their result gets logged to where their GP is because we still don’t seem to be able to cope with students having two households.

Not knowing means you’re either on the team that believes that the prevalence rate is low and that we “have to get these things in proportion” or on the one that thinks there’s mass under-reporting and students are riddled.

So far a version of the debate has involved a set of trade-offs between health and the economy. But what if Peston’s right – and the return to campus costs the country more than insisting on it was presumably designed to save?


Maybe instead of looking to numbers, we could look north. Setting aside for a moment the ongoing row about whether we could or should have learned anything from North America’s fairly chaotic looking reopening of campuses – given it’s in the UK, and given its campuses basically opened first in August and early September, Scotland might have answers.

Last week the Director of Universities Scotland Alastair Sim said that Covid-19 outbreaks in Scottish halls of residence are “past the worst”. No second peak for Sim! Speaking at a meeting of the Scottish Affairs Committee, he said there was a “bit of a minority that didn’t quite get it” at the start of term, but that “because of the sheer infectiousness of the disease” it spread “more than anyone had foreseen or wanted” (note the way blame is allocated there). In other words, now we’re through an initial bit of Freshers’ chaos, as long as we keep calm and carry on, everything is going to be alright.

It’s not at all clear whether this is magical thinking or calm stoicism – but at least for now it certainly appears to be the current thinking percolating around the sector’s leadership. Trapped in a UK wide policy slipstream that prizes the idea that pubs will shut and hell will freeze over before schools close, the hope seems to be that initial surges centred on halls will pass, and that outbreaks can be kept small and somehow contained to “student communities”.

But what if they can’t be? What if students in halls in Scotland are about to come out of self-isolation, blinking into the light only to be sent back in again when someone else gets the sniffles? And what happens if someone accepts the argument – reasonably or not – that student migration is causing massive viral transmission and amplification, is temporarily pedagogically largely unnecessary and that SOMETHING MUST BE DONE?

Isn’t someone, at some stage, going to notice that Canada did it all differently and the sky didn’t fall in? And with civic tempers frayed, how long will it be before the need for “targeted measures” goes from voluntary student lockdowns to “hard” tactics aimed directly at students?

That was the leader of Manchester City Council last week. Then yesterday five Manchester MPs came perilously close to arguing that because the plan on “households” is in disarray and students are under house arrest, we should let the locals live it up in the pubs:

As you will know, a large proportion of our recent increase in infections are amongst our student population, now being managed in confined “households” mostly in halls of residence. Indeed, many of these were asymptomatic and were only picked up because of (locally delivered) mass testing. We were assured in Parliament this week that confined outbreaks would not be a reason for tighter restrictions for the wider population.

They should be careful. I’d find what are essentially, if we’re being honest, restrictions targeted on those living in HMOs and halls more palatable if we extended support and income protection arrangements for self-isolation to them and allowed asymptomatic testing where there is a case. But “student” really seems to be a more palatable way of saying “young people in cramped housing”.

99 big red balloons

So what’s the plan? In HE the easiest thing of all is always just to just do what we were already doing with some tweaks, and the basic plan remains as follows. The vast majority of students on taught programmes are to engage in a programme of blended learning, and to do that they either have to live in the local area or move to the town or city in which their campus is based and rent a room. In the middle of a pandemic, that generates two dangers. Think of them as balloons, slowly filling up with hot air from politicians as the nights draw in.

On the one hand, students might follow all of the rules. They’re away from home in densely packed housing. They don’t like anyone they live with. They’re deeply lonely and highly isolated. The very second they get a sniffle they cause the lockdown of their HMO, their hand drawn household or worse, their whole halls block. Other students ignore the rules but these students follow them and are mocked for doing so. They wanted to see their family at half term, but they’ve cancelled that now. Apart from 4 hours of awkward contact on campus and the queue for half an hour at a desk in the library, they spend all week in their room.

Our testing shambles means there’s no way out of the lockdown because we’re only testing the symptomatic. They’re hungry. Once isolation is over, the wider regional or local or national lockdown that’s not a lockdown is hard to predict, but we can be sure that it will be designed to ensure that they only mix with the five people they don’t get on with. The three societies they joined aren’t meeting face to face. They drink more. They take more drugs. And two days after household isolation is over… they get the sniffles.

On the other hand, some students won’t follow the rules. They know they’re unlikely to get ill. This is their one shot at university and they need friends to move in with next year. They mix. They visit other households and attend big parties until the sniffer dogs come. They switch tactics, and hold pre’s illicitly instead.

They’re hardly National Lampoon’s Van Wilder or American Pie’s Steve Stifler but they aren’t going to end up like those people trapped in their rooms. If anything they’re more Chris Knight from Real Genius. They’ll pass, but they’ll party. They spread the virus, amplifying it in exactly the way that SAGE predicted. Some get caught socialising and are fined or punished. Most don’t. They get the sniffles and of course they don’t get a test. Why would you?

The big squeeze

Apparently the idea is that somehow, though some stroke of magic, students will mostly squeeze through the middle of these two ever-expanding balloons. But that requires us to be able to answer the question “what are you expecting me to do all week, and where are you expecting me to do it”. And months and months after asking that question, I’ve still not heard a credible answer outside of those courses where there’s 25 hours teaching a week.

In fact, the closest thing to a credible answer was UUK’s Alistar Jarvis on our podcast back in July, who was urging us to be optimistic:

At the moment I think everyone has underestimated how much universities will be offering in-person. Yes, the experience will be different and of course our lives are different. We know we’re having to adapt socially distanced activities across all parts of our life and of course universities have to do that as well.

But don’t underestimate how much time and effort is going into looking at how you do socially distanced teaching. How do you do socially distant student support? And socially distant social activities. Universities will be offering a whole range of in-person activity far beyond just some of the teaching and so yes, it will be a different experience.

Actually if you compare it to the rest of people’s lives and what you would be doing otherwise, at university you’re going to get about as full an experience as you will do in any other part of life.

But it didn’t pan out like that. There’s barely any hope of it panning out like that for the rest of the academic year. And if we move up the “tiers of restriction” – voluntarily or by mandate, either at course level or institutionally, it may well get much worse.

No way through

If students can’t squeeze through the gap between the balloons, the third option is non-continuation. That’s fairly upsetting – mainly because between government and the sector we have, so far, failed to develop a safety net that would allow doing so to be painless and penalty-free.

For some having a wobble, we can and should do the arm-twisting that the government’s obsession with this metric says we should. For others, doing so would be deeply immoral, and store up other problems in both balloons. And then there’s a lot that will just be very unhappy with how this has turned out who should have the choice.

The deal we offer to students in this “market” is that information we supply to prospective students will somehow be predictive, both about the outputs (“what will it be like”, “how will I be taught”, “look at the lovely campus”) and the outcomes (student satisfaction, getting a job and a network of friends). But as it turns out, the information they got failed to predict the outputs and in time we’ll see that it failed to predict the outcomes too.

We really do have to wean ourselves off the idea that just because the sector’s costs are the same or getting higher, that students and graduates should still foot the same bill for the misery of it. Signing up to part pay off a full student loan however awful the experience isn’t some legal duty if you can pass your A levels.

As such, it’s obvious they should be able to leave without penalty. But at some point in the next few weeks as that SLC deadline edges nearer a student and their family are going to be plastered on a front page, on the hook for your fees and their landlord’s rent having not attended a single face to face teaching session yet and never once having set foot on campus.

What is to be done

There are things that we both can and should do, now. Or at least in time for the new year.

First, we need to find a way to allow students who left home to study and whose course can bear it to return home if they wish. For many, lockdowns mean that what we’re offering is objectively not better than being at home with their parents. Landlords will have to wait for their rent.

Next, we have to be honest and find a way to stump up for a discount for students whose experience is turning out to be Ratners-level rubbish. You know what I mean – you were shown around amazing art studios and you’re now getting an hour a week in there. Your uni promised a “blend” that turned out to be decidedly watery. Your tutors are getting more and more panicky about placement supply that can’t be postponed forever. That sort of thing. We can’t gaslight them into their student loan statement by wittering on about content equivalence forever.

However much F2F teaching is allowed or cancelled, some will stay. And for those that do, we have to sit down with some of them and work out what they’re going to do all week, and where they’re going to do it – because for all the food vouchers and mental health hotlines and personal tutor catch ups, they need a network. And if we can’t work out the answer to the question we need to ask why we’re still encouraging them to come back in January.

That probably means being intelligent about safe student sport and socially distanced student societies, and relentlessly focusing on what they can do rather than what they can’t do – supporting SUs to make that bearable in volume terms and as safe as possible in risk terms.

I don’t know who needs to hear this, but testing, testing, asymptomatic testing. As we noted here last week, the US sector is squeezing through with three basic strategies. Unless they’re mega-rich and testing everyone every day forever, they’re testing on arrival, they’re intensively testing when there’s an outbreak and they’re testing the whole household if one gets the symptoms.

Testing is a part of virtually every plan to reopen safely and stay open,” said Heather Pierce, senior director for science policy and regulatory counsel at the Association of American Medical Colleges. “Some combination of screening and surveillance testing is absolutely essential.”

Oh – and they’re reducing dorm capacity. We’ll need to do the same.

And even when all that is done, we will need to make sure we’ve addressed self-isolation. This is all a bit bottom of Maslow, but all of them – not just those in halls – need food, support and money. This initiative from Sussex is a great start – but it needs to be government-funded and scalable across the pandemic and the country.

And if after all that, students still hate it and want to go, we have to find a way for them to be able to do so penalty-free – both financially and in terms of educational opportunities next year.

There will be other issues to fix and medium-term challenges to solve. These will be easier if we break some of the habits of the initial stages – command and control, short term thinking, treating SU reps as people only capable of helping frame the comms.

We’ll need to find some inner strength to remember to deploy some empathy – in our thinking as well as our comms. There’s a reasonable argument that we can’t deliver what we originally promised because there’s an ongoing “force majeure” event on that’s preventing it. But if that’s true, it has to be true of staff, university managers and crucially students too.

We should all cut each other some slack – and for students, if that means reinstating that emergency mit circs policy or that “no detriment” marking scheme – then so be it.

One response to “Can students and universities squeeze through the pitfalls of the pandemic?

  1. To use service vernacular, it’s not just a cluster fuck, it’s a class one slow car crash mass death cluster fuck.

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