In the last couple of weeks government and sector focus has understandably been on how universities get their students home “safely” for Christmas.
The guidance published last week advises that the official mass migration of students should start on 3 December.
At the same time, news that one or more vaccines will soon be available to the public was announced. This has understandably fostered hope across the nation that by spring 2021, we may be able to resume some sort of normality – whatever ends up meaning – across wider society and in higher education.
Yet there is still little strategic national level discussion about what we do in January when students will resume their studies, and when we expect the arrival of the next tranche of new undergraduate and postgraduate students. The start of the next term is only eight weeks away so we need to start planning now. A collaborative approach was a missed opportunity in September but with institutions facing similar problems, is there finally the will to have clarity, consistency, and collaboration? Only time will tell.
What we know already
As was the concern expressed by many leading up to the start of the 2020 new academic year, the mass migration of students led to a peak in Covid-19 cases – regardless of the massive efforts of universities to prevent it. We know that any vaccine will not be targeted at the majority of students due to their age. This means Covid-19 will continue to have an impact in halls of residence and on campuses.
Universities have had a baptism of fire in dealing with outbreaks and will no doubt have refined their processes and approach for January, but Covid-19 is not going to disappear quickly and certainly not in the next 8 weeks. But the recent Unite survey about students’ Covid-19 experience suggests that most students intend continuing with their studies and are likely to stay in their accommodation.
This is positive news in a bleak environment. But it also feels like August all over again when we are focusing only on the positive rather than proactively troubleshooting the very plausible worst case scenarios. And as this last term has shown, there have been plenty of those. Our hope that mass testing will be the answer in January is already in doubt as university leaders admit they will struggle to do it in December.
My big worry about the vaccine announcement coupled with the suggestion that it is too early to start planning for January, is that it will lead to inaction and limited change. Just doing more of the same will not help the retention and experience of our students because our student body is so diverse. And the vacillation between universities being committed to online only, then forced to undertake face to face, then return to online has been immense. The reality is that we are not going to know the impact of Covid-19 on student participation until the end of the academic year. However, we have enough knowledge of the student experience (such as Christmas vacation is a withdrawal pressure point in normal times let alone Covid-19 times) and this past term, to plan now for January. We need to instil confidence into our students to resume their studies (whether online or blended) and enable staff to plan workloads.
Key actions to combat the impact on campus in January
Collect the right type of information now in order to plan for a safe January return. We need to effectively monitor actual student withdrawals to-date and the reasons why especially the Covid-19 related ones. We know students have and will continue to be affected. The quality of institutional withdrawal data varies so as I keep suggesting, in order to ensure the systematic and accurate collection of data that can be used for future planning, we should collect it via the Student Loans Company.
Understand the challenges students have experienced and continue to do so when managing how we move forward. This includes not just understanding study online issues as highlighted by Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, vice president for higher education at NUS but also everything else surrounding it. For example, students are:
- feeling let down that the student experience promises made in September were not realistic and honest by their university.
- faced with the realisation that they are liable for cost of accommodation and tuition fees for which many may feel they have had little in return.
- feeling demoralised or very concerned regarding perceived gaps in their learning due to changes since March.
It factors like these that can contribute to reduced mental health and wellbeing. Gain knowledge by undertaking short course-based student surveys in collaboration with student unions before and over Christmas to ascertain how students are feeling to determine what immediate and short term support they need. We can already anticipate that they will include digital poverty issues inhibiting or preventing access to learning, concerns about learning gaps, and financial pressures. These issues could lead to post Christmas withdrawals especially among those we know are most at risk of withdrawing such as disadvantaged students, commuter students, carers, care leavers and estranged students.
Identify what has worked well, what hasn’t, and what needs adjusting at course level to be responsive to student needs. Adapt progression and mitigating circumstances policies to address participation and assessment issues experienced in 2020-21 to assist with progression. And re-adjust metrics that are used to measure engagement – because in our new online world the rules of engagement have changed.
Provide students with options going forward in January in terms of study. Can a course continue to be taught entirely online, but with provision made for students who want to do some in person study? This could help students who are worried about returning or have caring responsibilities, and help them feel like they can attend. We also have final year students that – by the time they graduate – will have had over half of their course disrupted. So, can laboratory, studio and workshop based courses that require hands-on activities return to campus first? A staggered start was a missed opportunity in September, don’t let it be in January.
Reconfigure expectations for January through the provision of honest information, guidance, and advice – especially for new January starters. Students need “real models” not just “role models” based on honesty. Dropping out during a pandemic should not be considered a failing so if a student decides on this course of action, we owe it to them to make it the best possible withdrawal experience. It may just be the thing that brings them back to learning at a later point! Preparing mental health and wellbeing advice and support now for students and staff to access over the vacation period and making them aware of it is essential. If we do the above, we have a better chance of doing the best by our students.