Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

One of the notable aspects of recent days’ events in student accommodation is the rapidity with which the concept of the “household” within a larger student accommodation block has completely collapsed.

Student life normally involves spending lots of time in close proximity to others. This is true in accommodation (both halls and HMO), on campuses (in both classrooms and social learning environments), on public transport, and in cafes, bars and nightclubs.

Once all this is over, we ought to return to how we ended up spending so much time over the summer reducing the capacity of campuses, cafes and clubs but still assumed that almost all student accommodation should be operating at pretty much full capacity (not least because the marmalade has to go somewhere).

To cope in student accommodation, the idea was that a small group of rooms would be defined as a “household” and be able to mix, isolate together and so on. The English guidance gives this job of defining and policing mixing between households to providers, and there’s similar guidance in play around the nations:

A household in halls of residence is normally considered to be those students living in the same flat, or on the same floor, who share a kitchen and/or bathroom, rather than an entire block.”

But this has obviously been a huge mess waiting to happen since May, when the compatibility of the concept of a nuclear “household” within student accommodation first came up. Why would a new student get an early test when they might end up causing the lockdown of their new halls flat? Why would they be honest with tracing when they’re threatened with £10k fines? Adherence is at rock bottom amongst the general population, let alone new students.

An inspector calls

But even if you’re happy with your own arrangements, if you get an outbreak you then have to convince public health officials – and what’s clearly gone on in a number of cases already is that they have taken one look at the halls with outbreaks, asked a few people and concluded that the whole “household” thing hasn’t worked – and so the whole building has been locked down.

That presents major policy problems. If you have 500 students in a building or block, and you can’t meaningfully prevent them from mixing in the way that the fanciful guidance suggests, it’s hard to see how you avoid being locked down all term. That’s a lot of students, miserable, staring glumly out of protest-message adorned windows, giving video interviews complaining about paying through the nose to be in prison when you’ve pivoted online anyway because you can’t have that many students missing that much teaching.

There are major questions over legality. This human rights barrister was not at all sure that halls lockdowns in England are legal, and the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland, said they were seeking urgent talks with Universities Scotland and the Scottish Government over the human rights implications of the weekend’s new rules. By Sunday night, all and sundry were stressing that steps sold as requirements, rules and demands were merely advisory after all.

The trouble is, once public health officials see a pattern and get a taste for halls lockdowns, we are on a mightily slippery slope. What’s next – a lockdown of a whole road or postcode of HMOs in places like Lenton? Of course if nothing else, collapsing multiple households into one big building, block or road household does mean all 500 of them can go to the pub together once they’re let out – which should be a fun chat with the local copper/newspaper/residents association.

SAGE advice

It’s worth reflecting for a moment on the advice from SAGE to government on managing the risks here. SAGE never said it couldn’t or shouldn’t be done. But it had some really big caveats.

The story about students not being allowed home for Christmas actually came from the minutes of the meeting that discussed the SAGE advice paper to government that we looked at a few weeks ago. It said that a national, coordinated outbreak response strategy should urgently be put in place to link national government, the National Institute for Health Protection (ie the new PHE), universities, local public health teams and local authorities to monitor the incidence and prevalence of infection associated with higher education – and take appropriate actions.

Let’s assume that hasn’t happened. And that without it, we are therefore instead at the whim of local public health teams. These are poorly resourced and overworked officials already struggling to cope with calls from schools who also have the local press breathing down their neck. The danger is that they appear, roll their eyes, and lock down whole buildings repeatedly. Remember the big stories so far have been in Glasgow and Manchester where they ought to be used to and positive about students. Are public health going to be braver and more subtle in their response in your town or city?

Then where this starts to get really interesting is when similar outbreaks start to happen in these trendy co-living blocks popping up across the UK that house both students and young professionals/key workers. Imagine how that’s going to go down when the footsoldiers of capitalism and nurses (both student and graduate) can’t leave their block because a public health official wants to look as tough as Scotland and Manchester did last week.

Let’s also remember that the bigger the household, the less likely it is that students will cooperate with getting a test/telling the manager if they have symptoms, because of the dramatic implications. And the more you threaten them, the less likely they’ll cooperate with tracing services honestly. So sure, keep going with your big lockdowns and threats – and basically remove students from test and trace in the process.

It’s only advice

But the SAGE advice on national coordination and response wasn’t the only thing apparently ignored. To cope with student accommodation, its advice to government said that universities should provide “dedicated accommodation facilities” to enable students who test positive to effectively isolate if they require it.

It also suggested that “enhanced testing in response to clusters” would be an appropriate strategy when contact tracing is challenging or there is concern over wider transmission. The idea was that when you get an outbreak, you isolate the positives into dedicated blocks, and then intensively test their flat, course or other contact groups. That matters because (for example) towards the end of this video, one of the students says he tested positive 8 days ago. The SAGE advice would suggest that he should have been moved to dedicated accommodation and the whole household should have got a test almost instantly.

But the advice didn’t make it into DfE guidance. Testing is in chaos. There’s just a handful of universities keeping quarantine accommodation aside, not all of them are making it available to students living off campus, and the “throw some testing at the wall” thing only appears to be being planned in a handful of universities that have the money to buy in that kind of capacity.

To follow the advice, the sector would have needed money, time and national coordination. But it hasn’t had it.

SAGE also advised that providers facilitate access to dedicated accommodation facilities for other members of their community in isolation, such as commuter students or staff who are concerned about exposing vulnerable family members. That never made it in.

SAGE said that good practical support (including access to food and medical care) and information will help reduce distress among people in isolation. It said that preventing boredom, resolving fears around financial impact, and ensuring that there is no stigma attached to being in isolation should help mitigate any distress. It also said that access to more formal mental health provision (e.g. an institution’s counselling service) may also be required, particularly for staff or students with pre-existing mental health needs. The stories from the weekend underline just how important all of this is, but most of it never made it in.

Would it have been hard for DfE and the sector to follow all the advice from SAGE as late as it got it? Sure. Should we have tried? Looks like it. And the Scottish government is under pressure for ignoring advice from its advisors over all of this too.

Act now

So what can be done now? I’ve said for a couple of weeks now that support for students comes “horizontally” (friends, family, course mates, societies) and “vertically” (academics, support services etc). And it can be accessed on a “pull down” or “proactive push” basis.

We have to accept generally that the former is just not going to develop in anything like the same way this year. We can rue on not warning students or predicting this earlier another day. But the point is that it means that to compensate we have to massively step up the vertical. And I don’t just mean on request, pull down availability of support – by definition I mean “proactive push”. For students generally, but especially those in lockdown.

If I was running gold command in a university anywhere, I’d be prioritizing “proactive push” support for students via phone banks. I’d want a report every day on what students are saying, feeling and needing. And I’d be responding from there. If I was a student I’d love a call or a text from another student, plenty of whom would love the training and this year need the work. Your SU would probably jump at organising this for you if you ask them and you pay them. This is not a year to wait for module evaluation or the NSS. Nor is it a year to wait for students to come to the university to access support.

Next, we’ll need to think about the things required to at least give the impression we care. Glasgow got there in the end with a fairly impressive list – but not everyone will be able to recreate this, and the sector may need funding and coordination to pull it off.

What’s next

Once we are over the immediate halls crises, we need to look around the corner. If it is the case that the “household” thing won’t work, some of the pressure needs to come out of the “cram” we’ve created in halls and cities. As a society we can either manage that (it’s expensive – and involves ways of dealing with rental contracts) or we can pile on restrictions and it will happen anyway – and end up much more expensive.

If people just drop out of university out of frustration or poor mental health because our only answer is to crack down further, a whole chunk of that PBSA and HMO market is going to collapse. Your average HMO landlord is already overextended with mortgages and won’t cope with the number of voids, and there are similar issues in parts of the PBSA sector. I know many readers wouldn’t shed a tear if these landlords were in trouble. But both practically and politically, the pressure will relieve itself somehow – and I’d just rather it happened in a managed and controlled way rather than (say) leaving 3 students in a 6 student HMO leaving as the bank foreclosed – or worse, PBSA operators just abandon properties. If that happens, where would students live next term/next year if there is substantially less accommodation ? Cram them in even tighter? Dump them miles away and lay on buses?

We still need to focus on student lives, and I keep coming back to this. No-one has ever been able to answer my questions I’ve been repeating since March: “what are they supposed to do all week?” or “where are they supposed to be?” As long as we have no answer to these questions – or as long as the answer is “in their tiny room on their own” – is as long as we’ll have a major problem.

And then one other practical suggestion for universities. Non-continuation is clearly emerging as the next major risk. If you haven’t already, you should work out who dropped out in March, April, and May – and work out who’s not come back that should have. Then work out – with SLC’s help – the first years that never turned up and those who enrolled and then speedily disappeared. Both universities and SLC will be finding this out round about now.

We should contact them all, listen, synthesise, and act. Write us a blog if you want, and feed it back to that national taskforce or whatever if there’s stuff that DfE or their equivalents need to do – like properly funding hardship funds.

Selfish snowflakes

Beyond all that we really do need to think about public opinion. We’ve carried our fair share of “how to get better press for universities” pieces over the years on the site, but few of them focus on better press for students. Perhaps the most dispiriting thing about the last week or so has been the “comments underneath” – about selfish snowflake students and so on. The bit of the winter where we’re begging student nurses to join the front line again should be interesting.

There’s a toxic combination of avoidance, dismissiveness and gaslighting over the issues students have faced, a market model that encouraged us to say there would be a “full experience” that would just be “a bit different”, and a wider culture that viciously demonises their passion and optimism. And yet still we expect them to pay – for half a lifetime – for a severely diminished experience, increased mental health risk and poor access to shared facilities or wider friendship groups, so that a virus that on the whole doesn’t pose a serious risk to them is kept under control. The undermining of intergenerational solidarity while still demanding debt and compliance – certainly in comparison to the material and ideological differences in the way students and young people are treated in other countries – is staggering.

In the end, I do think that students and young people are capable of behaving in the wider public interest over a virus that statistically doesn’t affect them much. But is that job made harder by the deep level of disdain with which students and young people have been treated, especially during the pandemic? It is – and instead of cheering along as they’re locked up for doing as they were told, politicians would do well to start building the kind of guiding coalition required to secure their cooperation over the measures needed to come for the rest of this pandemic.

What would really help would be both some emotional and crucially material signals that we don’t absolutely hate them, think they’re idiots for choosing uni, are selfish, irresponsible, snowflakes and that they should be somehow eternally grateful for the chaos they’re about to pay for because the government has made it so hard for the rest of us arrange.

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