I really wish I had time to write down everything I was thinking about the current situation, about how it feels to read constant criticism of universities, our approach, our staff, our students, our leaders.
Everyone is having a go about just about everything from free speech to food in halls and from online learning to accommodation fees. And, of course, Christmas, did someone mention Christmas? It feels like every day is damned if you do, damned if you don’t and just damned for everything in between. Poor us. But it could be a lot worse of course. Universities under Covid, although challenged, remain in a much better place than many other parts of society.
There has been a huge debate about the start of session with everyone having a view on whether or not universities should have opened for face to face teaching this term. I do think that universities re-opening for students this September was, on balance, the right thing to do – the alternative would have had a greater negative effect on both new and returning students but arguing now about September is pretty pointless.
I wanted in this piece to review a number of current Covid issues which are among those which might be felt to be important for universities right now. Nine big things then about where we are now and where we are going. It’s a personal view so please don’t complain that I’ve missed things out. Or indeed about the things I’ve included.
In it for the money?
Everyone in universities is trying to do the right thing for our students, staff and the communities where we all live and work. I’ve been astounded by the contribution made by staff in all parts of our university over the past six months from academic colleagues, to cleaning staff, our security team, hall managers, wardens and tutors, Students’ Union officers and staff, sports staff, catering colleagues, finance and HR staff, student services and welfare teams, library staff, IT colleagues, technicians, researchers working on Covid research and testing and everyone else including academic and professional services leaders. Everyone has gone above and beyond to ensure our students are supported and we were able to restart teaching in September safely.
I know many are sceptical about the motivations of universities in the steps they have taken. But you cannot for a second doubt the positive intent of my colleagues since lockdown to do everything they could to support students, deliver good teaching and try to do research too. In short, everyone has been focused on enabling the university to do what it is here for in the most challenging circumstances any of us have ever faced. You can’t do any of this without money and there aren’t many who would say that the financial structure of our higher education system is optimal. But the idea that money is the primary concern here is quite wrong. Yes, leaders and governing bodies have to ensure the financial sustainability of their institution in the long term but the decisions which are being taken now are first and foremost about students and safety which is why, despite the most challenging financial outlook for decades, all universities are still spending millions more on health and safety and making campuses Covid-secure.
Is there a scenario in which government will deliver a bail out package to sustain universities for the next, say, 18 months, which means we don’t have to do any of this stuff on campus? No. We saw only very limited success from a campaign to support universities after lockdown and the idea that we are now top of the list for financial support from government is fantasy.
Let’s not go back to us and them
Furthermore, I would contest that the arguments for going to online only provision are not strong – there are very, very few cases of transmission in the classroom. The SAGE advice prior to the start of session about an online only approach was too late to impact the new term and really could not be applied now. There does not seem to be a strong argument at all therefore for moving right now to an online only mode – do we want students to stay in their rooms, halls and houses and avoid campus, classrooms and learning resources altogether? Students might not unreasonably complain about the very limited benefit of their learning experience if they have no face to face teaching and no access to libraries and other facilities on campus. And is that really conducive to good mental health too? We could envisage a large scale student exodus and a significant number of claims for both fee and accommodation rebates should a shift to wholly online learning happen now in a way akin to last March (and going far beyond the temporary and partial online models introduced recently by several universities but often erroneously reported as moves to totally online delivery). And where will it end – under what circumstances would in person teaching resume?
Whether intentional or not it appears that the focus here is almost exclusively on those staff teaching students in person. In making such arguments though there appears to be much less consideration for the fact that those staff who are already dealing with students face to face much more frequently would be engaging directly even more under this scenario. This group of staff – including cleaners, catering staff, security, and residential welfare staff – whose contribution to supporting students resident on campus has already been enormous, don’t seem to be part of the consideration here.
I’ve written here before about the unhelpful and unwarranted division between academic and professional staff – the “us and them” mentality which still exists in parts of the sector as well as the attitude that professional services are the staff “below stairs” whose voices often don’t seem to count for very much in universities.
We really do not want Covid to lead to the establishment of a two-tier community where we have one group of staff who are dealing with student issues face to face day in day out and another most of whom never come to campus but instead deliver everything online. Surely no-one would want to end up with such a stark professional services v academic in our campus community. We have all come together so well during the last six months that the kind of division which the ‘go wholly online’ proposition entails would be hugely counter-productive in my view.
Community and communities
Some within universities will profoundly disagree with most of what I’ve written here. That’s fine. There are some within my own university who will argue with much of this. But that too is fine by me – they are serious and diligent colleagues who continue to do their jobs superbly well and teach, research and support students or otherwise help the university run, even while disagreeing with my views or the approach taken by the institution. We are one community, all trying to do the right thing in this most challenging of times.
But it is those who see the current situation as an opportunity to attack universities and their staff I really have no time for. And those in parts of the press and on social media who seem to be relishing the difficulties facing universities and missing no opportunity to criticise (and never even mildly praise) really do irritate.
However, there are other communities too – the local communities in which universities sit and staff and students live, shop and socialise. These communities are suffering much more than our institutions and many local residents are anxious, concerned or even angry about the student presence in neighbourhoods. One thing this crisis has demonstrated is that relationships between universities and their local communities, partners and stakeholders have never been more important.
We all have to work with and learn from each other to help us get through this crisis. In our city, worked closely with our partner institution, Nottingham Trent University with Public Health, City and County Council leaders and officers, the Police and other agencies too. Never have these local relationships mattered so much as they do now.
This is not America
Hindsight is, of course, the most exact science. I wrote a controversial piece here on Wonkhe at the beginning of September about how universities were doing the right thing to prepare for the start of session. I argued then that looking to the position in the US and highlighting the problems that many universities have had there with their reopening plans was not instructive. This was on the basis that there were many variances between US and British higher education, health care and societal models as well as what are often quite different residential, sport, financial, regulatory and social structures which meant that things are hard to compare with the UK in the context of the pandemic. I also observed that, whilst welcoming the transparency of case reporting, I struggled to understand
the motivation of those in this country enthusiastically sharing these reports through social media as if highlighting the number of coronavirus cases arising at a US university or a pool party taking place near the University of South Carolina in some way confirms that the start of session in the UK is being approached in the wrong way.
Quite a few people have taken issue with this position on the basis that the growth in student cases in universities in the UK confirms that we should have listened to them (and their tweets about US numbers) and not welcomed students back to universities at all here.
Well, I would still contend that the UK – and UK higher education – are different to the US in many respects, and that whether or not there were loads of cases in the US is not the determining factor in seeking fully to open campuses safely and securely in the UK. All the preparations taken by universities were the right ones for welcoming new and returning students and, despite the weaknesses in the national testing regime, it has proved possible to test and then isolate students quickly where necessary. However, I would honestly say I think the speed of transmission both within student halls and in off-campus settings took many, including me, by surprise and coping with that has been a huge challenge for universities. The response to these outbreaks, in line with public health advice, has had an impact and those institutions which opened first and saw the biggest case numbers initially, are now showing declines in new case numbers – certainly at the University of Nottingham we have seen a significant drop in case numbers since the earlier peak. A pattern that seems to be sector-wide.
Thankfully too the health impact across the student body has been very low. But does just endless updating, sharing and compiling rankings of institutional case numbers help anyone? No. Rather it just feeds social and other media and the notion, quite wrong, that somehow this is all completely out of control and that students are a problem. It isn’t and they aren’t. But we do have to learn from the experience of the start of session and ensure we are better placed to prevent future outbreaks and deal with them when they do occur.
Neither Saints Nor Pariahs
Normally at this time of year we see lurid headlines about daft student freshers’ week shenanigans and the disruptions caused to local life in towns and cities across the land. This narrative has been replaced in all news outlets by a ‘halls of residence as prisons’ line which extends to various entertaining signs in bedrooms, often created from Post Its, requesting more supplies of one kind or another. And they really can’t get enough of this stuff which could not be more dispiriting for those working their socks off to provide catering, support and welfare to students who are isolating. Still, it’s all about the questionable nutritional value of Pot Noodles now.
Universities have asked students to follow lots of rules, which are being updated all time in the light of new government requirements, on top of new rules they have to adapt to about studying in university plus hands-face-space and one-way systems etc. It is unsurprising that some have struggled to follow all the rules, a few have deliberately flouted them and others have inadvertently transgressed. But the vast majority have followed the rules and behaved sensibly, recognising that many of their peers are really anxious and worried too about the impact of the virus.
Despite this they continue to be blamed and targeted in the media. This year’s undergraduate intake have already had the hardest run up to their arrival at university with months of lockdown, cancelled exams and then the great big A level fiasco and a constrained freshers’ week before a very different kind of autumn term. And then they have to follow all the new rules. Returning students and postgraduates haven’t had it much better. Blaming and denigrating students for the growth in Covid-19 cases is both unfair and wrong. They may not all be following all the regulations all the time but show me any part of the community that is.
Isolation for students, whether in halls or houses, at home or university, is hard to cope with and universities have to focus on giving them the support that they need. At a time of enormous stress and pressure on many students, ensuring that they do get the support they need really is critical. There is no more important time to be maximising our efforts in taking care of this generation of students.
One of the general features of the last six months has been how remote the various regulatory bodies and authorities in higher education have been in relation to what has been happening in universities. Not so with some of the professional and statutory bodies which have I think engaged pretty well with academic colleagues in relevant disciplines.
I’m struggling to think of many instances where any guidance, briefing, circular, case study or other publication from any of the sector’s regulators has actually helped in any substantive way with any aspect of teaching and learning, student welfare and support or university operations more broadly. I do know that the QAA for instance has produced some guidance on assessment and appeals and a handy list of everyone’s Covid update pages but such examples are limited.
However, the fact that so much of this has been left to institutions themselves does serve to confirm the fundamental truth about the quality of educational provision and the standard of academic awards in universities that they are hugely dependent on the professionalism of academic staff and the commitment of both teachers and students to pursuit of learning. There are internal regulatory frameworks too from Charters and Statutes to assessment regulations but also the essential continuing operation of the university as a self-critical academic community which remains a core guarantor of standards and quality.
There is externality though in this system and in addition to the PSBs mentioned above we still have external examiners, learned societies and other wider professional networks concerned with supporting the enhancement of educational quality. Nevertheless the experience of the past six months has shown very clearly just how important the professionalism of academics is for the maintenance of academic standards and assurance of educational quality.
Everyone is exhausted
It’s been a heck of a journey since the end of March for everyone working in universities and most staff have been working extraordinarily hard to support students through the remainder of the last academic year, prepare for the start of the new session and then commencing the term. Some have had the challenge of furlough too. Operating in ‘crisis mode’ for six months and adapting to new ways of working has left many exhausted. One way or another though we all have to work at a more sensible pace in recognition that this is very much a marathon and continuing to sprint is going to end badly. And avoiding paying any attention to the constant stream of criticism being directed at universities through various channels will probably help too.
Social media is exhausting too and has many dispiriting features these days. My personal favourite channel, Twitter, has turned over time from what felt like a lovely pleasant social gathering space where you could be entertained, stimulated and challenged all at the same time, a bit like a fun online cool music and arts festival into something closer to a fenced off pub car park which has been labelled as a beer garden, strewn with rubbish and broken glass and loads of drunk people looking for a fight. It’s not nice. Worse still, most of these slurring pub bores are also self-appointed experts on everything about Covid-19, British politics and higher education. And everyone is just SHOUTING all the time. I’m not sure I can really see the appeal any more.
Not a cool yule
One of the current hot topics for those who like to shout on social media is the Christmas break and then beyond Christmas, what are we going to do about returning students (those who do go away over the break) in the new year.
Whilst every university is working up all of the options here for both, we don’t have an answer for this at the moment. As it stands the government tiers, the rules on travel and new households cause significant issues with the traditional move back home (for some but by no means all as many will have to or choose to stay in their term time residence) this Christmas. How would we approach the various scenarios under consideration? I don’t know yet, but we are going to need to come up with some answers pretty soon and it is going to require some flexibility from government as well as universities. One thing is certain though, it really is going to be far from traditional festive fun.
Look to the future
Nick Hillman recently published a nice piece on the shape of higher ed beyond the pandemic. It feels really difficult when things are moving so quickly, like it is taking all you can do to keep up with the news and the latest alert levels and everything is always in crisis mode but we all do have to try and look beyond where we are now. Not just looking ahead a few weeks and months but beyond that too. If the past is a different country then the future feels like a stormy unnavigable ocean right now but face it we must. We have to plan and prepare for a different kind of reality but if it is to be one that we have any hand in shaping that is going to require time, energy, creativity and real intelligent thought and debate. All of these are at a premium right now but we have to work out a way to chart a course to how we see our universities operating in future, both to ensure we stand a chance of survival and long run success but also to give us something to be optimistic about.
In optimistic mode then it is worth noting this video from The Times shows the work of the University of Nottingham’s Biodiscovery Institute which has been leading pioneering asymptomatic testing approach on campus. This approach could be one of the helpful routes to delivering the mass testing model which may offer a way forward for universities in the future. (With apologies in advance for the footage of me putting on a lab coat in the video.)
No institution is going to get this 100 per cent right but all are going to extraordinary efforts to look after their students. The investment and activity required, both in teaching and learning and student welfare support not to mention health and safety, are enormous and having a massive impact on operations which will inevitably mean that other things take a back seat in the meantime. Whatever happens, for all of us the safety of staff and students will be our foremost consideration as we seek to offer the education and wider support our students expect.
The alternative to where we are now – not opening campus to new and returning students – would have meant that over two million students would have been staying exactly where they were since March and half a million of these would never have been to their chosen university. In my view the consequences of that for them, their mental health, their ability to adapt and grow into university life and studies would have been potentially catastrophic. Others will argue that the student presence on campuses is even worse. It’s not a particularly productive debate now but one that will be played out again in a new form as we move to consider the post-Christmas return to studies for all those students.
So, let’s stick together as one university community (not a two tier one), work with our local communities too, stay optimistic, look after our students and look positively to the future. In the meantime, it’s next stop Christmas.