Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

As universities put finishing touches to their detailed plans for face to face teaching, I have bad news.

I’ve started to come to the conclusion that rather than run as much of it as possible, in fact we need to cancel as much face to face teaching as we can, as soon as possible – for the sake of our communities, staff, students and even the country.

What’s got me there is something I keep forgetting about this pandemic thing – that there isn’t some gentle, inexorable slope down to normality. The best bet is that things will eventually settle at “not as bad as they were”, but still “really bloody uncomfortable” – with both minor and major lurches back until we get a vaccine.

And with that in mind, I’ve tried to reconcile that reality with where universities’ plans are at for the Autumn.

Ooh, it gets dark, it gets lonely

It’s mid November. We’re now eight weeks into our blended, “socially distanced”, “Covid-secure”, “dual delivery” term, and a vaccine is still many months away.

It’s cold. It’s dark. It’s raining. And students are loudly and angrily vocalising to the press, the public and their parents what we really ought to have predicted – that their experience of higher education this term is turning out to be unremittingly miserable.

Fewer students than usual enrolled – not so few as to generate a government bailout, but certainly enough to cause the big cuts to kick in. Then more than we’re used to gave up their course when the paucity of the provision started to play out. And then many more on top of that failed to develop the “belonging” we know is needed to keep many on the course once the clocks go back and nights set in.

It turns out that when they said “I want face to face teaching” in those surveys, what they really meant was “I want things to go back to normal”. But normal was not an option that was really on offer.

I pine a lot, I find the lot

Part of the problem is that “in person” experience we assured them of back in June. For many students, there’s hardly any of it – and what there is a pretty awful experience. The stuff that didn’t require interaction had already been put online, so what was left was the back and forth, the Q&A, and the group work. But students are sat miles away from each other, and miles away from their academics. Everyone struggles to hear and understand everyone else.

Most of the time some students are late because of public transport restrictions, and every week there’s any number of other students missing altogether because they’re having to self isolate for a fortnight. Some that were immunocompromised had already been told to stay away – not healthy enough to make the F2F cut, despite assurances on “equality first”.

Some academics, worried about catching the virus, haven’t been back on campus all term and are trying, from home, to facilitate interaction between 15 students sat miles apart in a sports hall. Others can’t come in for the same reason that some students can’t. Someone “up high” suggests that those joining remotely but synchronously should be able to take part – but if you’re “teaching”, do you focus on Zoom, or the room, or both? And how do each of those groups interact with each other?

There’s also a timetabling issue. Glen O’Hara rehearsed some of these problems in the Guardian – basically, even when we can find the staff and the space to teach everything in small classes, we came a cropper when a student complained they only had 60 seconds (then another complained of only having 60 minutes) to switch from F2F to Zoom – because there’s nowhere on campus that students are allowed to sit.

Back in August, we spent millions converting “audio only” teaching spaces to capture video too. Then we realised that because what was left was the interactive bit, we needed multiple microphones in each room, and those too cost a fortune. But as soon as it became clear that in every hour of contact there would be more students trying to access the teaching online than in person, it also became clear that the millions weren’t enough. It turned out that however hard we tried, we couldn’t really make the F2F teaching actually work.

They told me I was going to lose the fight

Outside of these teaching rooms, campus is eerie and quiet. Between classes, students aren’t really allowed to be on campus. In September freshers were playing rounders and chatting in marquees, but it’s bitterly cold now. What indoor social space there was has either been converted to teaching, or is running at 20% capacity. So partly to get home in time for the next Zoom lecture, and partly to see their friends, they flee campus as soon as possible.

And there’s where the problems really compound. Independent study – in groups, in labs, in studios, in corners – makes up a huge chunk of a given student’s week, and much of it used to happen on campus. But there’s no space to study on campus now. For all of our reliance on it when we were being harangued over contact hours, we didn’t allocate any campus capacity for it for this term. We forgot.

Commuter students no longer have campus to “escape” to – and find it impossible to progress with the pressures at home. Those on the wrong side of the digital divide are robbed of the facilities on campus that enabled them to succeed, and hardship funds to cover the issue won’t stretch as far as ministers pretend.

Meanwhile “traditional” residential students mix and spread the virus like wildfire, indoors. Because of course they will. Because while we timetabled Lecture Theatre 3 on thirteen different scenarios, we forgot to work out what students would be doing with their lives. Because we never asked.

No one I’ve spoken to has yet got any sense yet of what we are assuming or expecting students will do all week, or where they will be. They can’t be on campus. They’ll be discouraged from mixing. The “organised” teaching and social activity won’t amount to many hours. There won’t be room in libraries or cafes. So what do they… do?

Rave on

We don’t yet know what caused the “Leicester lockdown” – some say it’s low temperature sweatshop-style catering and clothing factories, others suggest East Midlands versions of the raves and parties stories we’ve seen involving young people for a few weeks now. The papers were certainly quick to point out details of “an illegal Leicester street party with 200 ravers” filmed during lockdown. And this is outside of term time.

The UK stories largely don’t concern students – yet. But keep an eye abroad. 210 students attending university in Belgrade, of which a quarter had lived in student dorms, have been infected with the virus, the Director of the Belgrade Institute for Student Health Care, Marija Obradovic, said on Monday. Serbia is now discussing whether to empty halls across the country.

By the end of last week the papers were full of another story – this time specifically involving students. Officials in Alabama were alarmed to find students holding “Covid parties” to intentionally infect each other with coronavirus. The trend sees young participants invite those known to be infected to a party, and taking bets on which guest will catch the disease first – a sort of extreme initiation ceremony.

Ironically, it may not be reckless. The parallel is with a US tradition of the “Measles Party”, where parents send their kids on sleepovers so they can catch the virus from infected peers as early as possible, so they get their immunity and avoid illness during (eg) exams. In that scenario, it’s not an initiation thing – it’s a means of self protection for later in the term.

Across the pond, news has been emerging all month of a failure to predict that students will socialise on their return. Coronavirus cases are rising fast among young people, and the spread of the virus has been connected to college-related events such as fraternity parties, drinking at off-campus bars and student sports teams.

The University of Minnesota says seven athletes from “multiple sports” have tested positive for the coronavirus. College students in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, continued to attend parties even after testing positive for the coronavirus, a city official confirmed on Tuesday. On Friday it emerged that at least 80 students living in a dozen fraternity houses just north of the University of Washington campus have reported testing positive for Covid-19.

Florida student Lauren Bouskila, 21, said on a TikTok video she thought it was safe to go out, grab a drink, and leave the bar – and after feeling sick for a few days, she and her roommates decided to get a drive-thru Covid-19 test. Guess what the result was.

The result is that commentators across the US are starting to question the wisdom of “autumn reopening” for universities. They’ve noticed that campuses might be “Covid secure” but that universities are quieter on how to prevent transmission in communities. Many argue that whilst infections will happen from student to student – most of whom are less susceptible to the harms of Covid-19 – other transmissions will occur with older staff and the community.

Tell them not to mix? People may well be chatting about “compacts” and “community responsibility agreements”, but this is all wrong-end-of-the-telescope stuff. Top tip – if you’re working somewhere that is thinking about codes of behaviour and rules that are trying to stop students doing something, it’s wise to have some idea of what it is we think they’ll be doing with their days and nights instead.

Commentators are also asking the question that we’ll have to answer soon too. Is the goal to reduce transmission amongst students – or accept it, and try to keep students away from everyone else? And if we can’t answer that basic question, how credible are our plans?

Sliding doors

There is another, alternative reality that could play out in September. In this scenario students don’t hold lots of parties, don’t do much mixing, and even stick to suggested or organised “social bubbles” still being preposterously contemplated in some universities. But beyond “this just won’t work”, there are massive dangers to stopping students from mixing in September. They’ll be pretty lonely for a start.

When I was a kid, my first computer was a Sinclair ZX Spectrum. The machines were originally marketed as an educational tool, and Sinclair’s engineers hoped that people would turn on the computer and become programmers. Some did – but most just worked out how to make the screen say “Jim is skill” and then started playing games on it instead.

This is an example of Jobs To Be Done (JTBD) theory, an approach to user needs and strategy developed by Harvard Business School professor Clay Christensen and Bob Moesta, and referenced in this piece on university reopening here. JTBD argues that people pay to get a job done, but that organisations often don’t understand the real job they are actually being paid to perform.

In the piece, Paul Le Blanc (the VC at Southern New Hampshire University) argues that “traditional” students have two jobs they want done. One is access to well paid and meaningful work, made possible through obtaining a degree and supplied by academic programs. The second job to be done is “coming of age”, that “intoxicating combination of growing up and lifestyle”. Are we in danger of downgrading that second job? And is this just something that “traditional” students need?

On the buses

This Guardian comment piece on commuter students picked up plenty of attention, and was a good rehearsal of concepts around “norms” and the supposed “traditional student”. But there were some strange lines in it that repeated cliches we’ve heard before both about commuter students and mature students. “Attempts to involve stay-at-home students in campus activities can be clumsy and misguided” is probably true, but “buddy schemes suppose they yearn for companionship, when many already have full social lives” is pretty off-beam.

Many commentators suppose that non-residential students don’t “need” friends at university, but our loneliness research last year suggests that it’s absolutely true that commuter students want/need friendship at university. Only half of commuter students feel that they are part of a community of staff and students, almost 2 out of 10 commuter students have not made any true friends at university and more commuter students report feeling lonely on a daily basis. This isn’t out of choice – the research told us that meeting new people and making friends is a key priority for them, mentioning practical considerations (time constraints, difficult commute), not knowing how or not feeling welcome.

A few weeks back, student “bubbles” were the big idea – but what do you do for students who aren’t in their first year and may already have a house with housemates sorted? What if you’re the only BAME student on your course, or LGBT+ student? How quickly can you get a student (who is being harassed for instance) out of the bubble into emergency accommodation and rehouse them in another bubble – ensuring that their new bubble is happy and consent to it? Do they need to quarantine for two weeks before they are put into the new bubble? And what does that do for their welfare in the meantime?

But more broadly, even outside of this bubbles stuff, in the folklore of higher education – where “bonding” social capital involves hanging out with students like you but “bridging” social capital involves mixing with students not like you – there’s a massive danger. The bonding stuff makes students feel safe. The bridging stuff broadens horizons and reduces discrimination. We could well be about to kill off both sorts – and that would be a very dangerous thing to do indeed.

We’re already concerned about young people and screen time. If we’re assuming that half of their formal teaching, most of their independent study, and most of their organised and organised social time is to be spent online – are we sure that’s healthy? How many of the 120 hours a week students are awake for won’t be spent staring at a screen?

For more on this see https://wonkhe.com/blogs-sus/what-are-students-going-to-do-with-their-time/

There is a solution

There’s a lot of high minded talk about responsibility, autonomy and wanting to be left alone to “do the right thing” in the UK higher education sector – but for all that talk, unlike in the US we’ve not (yet) seen a single attempt by a UK university at modelling virus transmission amongst students and their wider community.

It’s almost as if we think that this famously competent-so-far government will have already worked out the potential problem ahead and so because we’ve not yet been warned that it won’t, that it’ll all be OK.

First there was this paper on students and transmission. Then this paper from academics at Yale is interesting. It sets out to answer the question of what kind of screening and isolation programme will keep students safe and permit the reopening of campuses. It concludes two things – an uncompromising (and heavily enforced) focus on social distancing behaviour, and frequent in-house testing. We’re talking testing every student, every 2 or 3 days. All year.

Then there’s the use of campuses. This fascinating paper from five PhD students at Cornell University has a good go at modelling scenarios of virus transmission, and recommends that as well as all that stuff about social distancing posters and arrows on the floor, universities should be deploying a combination of their own contact tracing; compulsory mask wearing; testing students prior to, and upon, returning to campus; decent quarantine capacity and more of that Yale “asymptomatic surveillance” – basically lots and lots of on campus testing (in this one they suggest testing 1/5 of the entire campus population every day).

What’s most interesting about it is that it concludes that, on balance, a “return to campus” scenario is actually safer than spending the whole of next term online – because a meaningful and dangerous fraction of the student population would still return to Ithaca (the local area) in the autumn either way.

As a result, in light of the decision to not reopen campus, these returning students would be outside the purview of the university, would not be subject to repeated “asymptomatic surveillance”, and so would spread a lot – between each other, and to the local community. So instead of fancifully expecting students with symptoms to ruin their housemates’ fortnights by reporting symptoms, they’re doing all they can to catch the problem on campus.

In other words, they conclude that the absolute worst thing that a university could do is “re-open” in the autumn but then massively restrict access to campus – because if the university takes those extra steps, the campus is a very safe place to be. The absolute worst thing to do, in their view, is the actual thing that almost all UK universities are intending to do.

Cancel the face to face teaching

Ideally we’d have worked this out and done all we could to avoid moving people back into our local towns and cities – but that (landlocked cruise) ship has probably sailed.

I do though have some hope and a vague idea of a solution. First, in principle, we should start gearing the working groups and the problem solving around understanding students (and staff) lives. We’ve spent years concluding that “lived experience” matters. Surely by asking ourselves (or even, god forbid, students) “how will students with particular characteristics or on particular courses spend their week” we’ll get better answers than we have now by September.

Next, swallow hard, and let’s cancel as much of that face to face teaching on campus as we possibly can. It’s a waste of space. By December, no-one’s coming in unless they really have to. Where students need labs, or studios, or specialist equipment, let’s do that with the social distancing thing. But if not – we move all the teaching online. Like we did in March.

Once that’s decided – much to the relief of everyone involved – we still do everything we can to encourage students to come to, be on and hang out on campus. Yes – they still have to socially distance and yes, we will need to spend some money on that “asymptomatic surveillance”. Mask wearing will be compulsory. We’ll need some capacity to monitor social distancing. But at least they’ll have somewhere to be, and study, and get tested. And we must do all we can to get them to stay, not go away.

In this model, we keep open the computer labs for students that need them. The SU bar is open and functioning. We make sure that the LGBT+ society has a big room to meet in. There are vast spaces for group work, ventilated halls for indoor sport, a room for the ACS to hold their social in, and lots and lots of places to sit on a Tuesday lunchtime. Students can do their “course” stuff online – and where specialist needs mandate it, offline – but on campus, students can bond, and bridge, and really “learn”.

It’s the Job they need To Be Done. Better that we work that out now than in December.

11 responses to “If we must reopen campuses, we musn’t waste them on teaching

  1. I thought this was a really interesting and provocative piece, but it seemed to talk as if living on campuses is much more widespread than it is. This may be due to the US comparisons – I believe living on campus throughout is quite common there, whereas I’ve never encountered a UK university (except Oxford and Cambridge) where there is the expectation or space for most students to live on university property except in their first year. ‘Keeping them on campus’ seems much more viable if it’s where they live; if they’re going to go off campus every night no matter what then I don’t see how encouraging campus time really mitigates the risks to that wider community that they’ll still be living among and taking the bus alongside. I also find it hard to imagine how you’d run such frequent testing if you don’t really know who is on campus or where they are at any given time (i.e., again, if you’re not dealing with a fixed resident population – are you handing out corona tests in the car park?) and I also can’t think of anything more likely to put students off coming to campus than getting them to stick a swab up their nose and down their throat every few days.

  2. This article is scaremongering and it lacks proper scientific evidence from pathologists, doctors and immunologists, namely those who know about viruses,

  3. I’m unsure what you mean when you say ‘they’re doing all they can to catch the problem on campus.’ – who is they? The university or the students? Perhaps this could be reworded to be clearer, maybe?

  4. Jim, thank you for articulating what’s been worrying me for months. Recruitment may look as if it’s holding up for now, but how many people are going to drop off the radar when they realise what it’s really going to be like… masks, surveillance, constant testing – and still no (legal) social life.

    We should have committed to 100% online teaching, or a January start, or both, not this monster hybrid that – even purely pedagogically, let alone anything else – offers the worst of both worlds. And because no institution would dare to make that commitment unilaterally – because applicants, as you point out, for whatever reason, *say* they want to be on campus – the government should have mandated it. I am utterly dreading September.

  5. Thanks Jim. I think students need to be leading the solutions not people of our generation. We should simply facilitate. Treat them responsibly and they will respond. Otherwise we are all doomed and I for one certainly dont want that.

  6. @Barbara Pierscionek This is an article about human behaviour and resource management, not about viruses. You might disagree with its conclusions about how people will behave, and prefer alternative scenarios to plan for and how to respond to them, but simply to dismiss the questions it raises as scaremongering doesn’t really seem like an adequate response.

  7. This piece offers a really useful provocation to HE’s dominant thinking. We urgently need to think about what could be cancelled as well as what could be continued. The sector’s planning seems back-to-front, with a return to an earlier normality the explicit goal, and anything less regarded as sub-optimal. For the reasons that you state, this is a high-risk approach. It’s understandable that recruitment is the over-riding concern at the moment for universities, but there has to be realistic and honest planning for what comes after the money changes hands.

    Re commuter students, I accept your critique fully. My piece was about trying to challenge the deficit approach that many universities still have towards undergraduates that that decline the ‘full’ HE experience and choose to stay at home. I worry that they’re homogenised and patronised. I probably could have chosen a better example than ‘buddy schemes’. However, I know that some students do feel that universities could more actively attempt to sustain meaningful, long-term academic and personal integration between different groups. I agree that loneliness and isolation are massive problems; I just feel that the solutions need to go beyond buddying introductions. As you say, there’s much more that could be done to understand what different kinds of stay-at-home students want from their institutions.

  8. It’s a very good job our NHS workers haven’t taken this pusillanimous approach, otherwise we’d have kept all our hospitals shut wouldn’t we?

  9. Pls this year is ridiculous and it’s all gone what’s the point! Second wave might be coming… this year is ruined anyways…. no cure yet for this terrible silent killer of a disease! It will be safe for everyone if university students go remotely online for all teachings until there is a cure! This year has been nasty and terribly unbelievable on everyone a lot of lives lost unnecessarily ! Let’s take caution…. remotely won’t hurt anyone let’s roll….

    A prospective student

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