Is there still a case for national coordination of students’ return to campus?

The time for a national response for higher education to Covid-19 is past - what matters now is effective local collaboration. Debbie McVitty thinks through what might need to be in place to make that happen.

Are university campuses Covid-secure? Of course not.

Universities are embedded in places and communities, where there are greater or lesser instances of Covid-19. They serve multiple constituencies, all with different living and working patterns.

Over the summer, universities have grappled with a multitude of possible risks and put in place strategies to mitigate them. They’ve been “helped” by guidance from national governments on what to think about – including last week’s updated guidance issued by the Department for Education last week and that provided by the Scottish government – but by and large universities have been asked to take responsibility for their own Covid security measures including such thorny issues as managing student socialising behaviour.

Throughout there have been calls for improved national coordination of efforts and communications. We’ve no doubt universities have been swapping strategies behind the scenes, through mission groups and representative bodies. But there hasn’t at any point been a sense that there’s a coordinated national approach to manage and oversee the mass migration of students this autumn. Nor has it been established that every single UK provider has, in fact, taken appropriate steps to mitigate the risks – there’s no regulatory infrastructure to achieve that level of public confidence.

In the absence of a national strategy that would have required coordination – such as a programme of staff secondments, shared space, or deferrals, as suggested in this piece by Mark – you could certainly argue that national coordination is unnecessary, and would simply have added additional burden of reporting and meetings to universities already operating well beyond capacity.

Universities appear by and large to have been expected to get on with it, and are now facing the prospect of being blamed for local outbreaks – whether because their students actually do engage in high-risk behaviour, or because they are perceived to be doing so.

Though we can’t yet know the scope and scale of this autumn’s second spike, it would be ludicrous to assume that there won’t be flare-ups of the virus in the coming months – and the government knows that very well.

The time for any coherent national strategy for higher education is long past, but there’s still a significant need for a change in approach that’s less about setting expectations of how universities as a sector address the specific risks that are creating by bringing a cohort of students from across the country to mix with local students and local communities, and more about developing an integrated approach to monitoring and managing the circumstances in which those risks inevitably materialise.

Think globally, act locally

DfE guidance – as Jim has explained – includes significant directives about local collaboration, a point emphasised further by secretary of state Gavin Williamson in his speech to vice chancellors at the recent Universities UK members’ meeting.

That does make some sense – there is significant variation in rates of Covid-19 in different localities and governments are desperate to avoid another national lockdown.

But it also changes the lens you bring to bear on the issues. This is no longer a “universities” problem, but one in which universities are part of a wider network of public health management at local level.

Crucially, for good decisions to be made locally, there needs to be a number of things in place – some of which require national oversight. Such as:

  • Accountability for local decision-makers to work with key organisations and take responsibility for developing an integrated plan – so that requires bodies at the national level to set that expectation.
  • Risk assessments for different kinds of organisations to be shared and integrated so that a local picture of combined risks can emerge and inform planning.
  • High-quality data to inform decision-making and protocols in place to enable data sharing between local stakeholders. A useful data point, for example, might be the incidence of Covid-19 in the places that students have come from, as well as in your own area. To understand whether and how university activity is playing a role in local outbreaks, both universities and public health authorities need a working picture of who is infected and where they are. DK has worked on what datasets might be of use here.
  • Which means sufficient test and trace capacity at local level to inspire confidence that local decision-makers have a grip on the trends in cases in as close to real time as possible.
  • Ideally, a level of consistency in approach to identifying possible hot spots for cases and taking action, and sharing of the outcomes, so that other decision-makers in other localities have information about what interventions might be effective – this requires at minimum there to be a national effort to log and share information about what’s going on.
  • And, of course, clarity over in whose hands lie decisions about measures to take – if a public health authority believes that the number of cases at their local university warrants a change in policy, but the university disagrees, who decides? In Scotland, for example, these questions can get quickly referred up to national government and be on the first minister’s desk by lunchtime – in Westminster it could be rather more convoluted.

All this – or something close to it – may be in place in some areas, but almost certainly not all. And while none of this directly addresses the risks associated with universities having influence but no actual control over the behaviour of individual students, it could create the conditions for a coordinated and managed response to the consequences of risky behaviours, where they emerge.

Testing times

Our understanding is that, as ever, the local picture is somewhat mixed. Some local health authorities are engaging well with universities, while others are not. The availability of Covid-19 tests that are walk-in and local to universities has been highlighted as a serious flaw in a consistently weak national testing system. Though new testing sites are in development with, for example, 11 expected to be in place by the end of October in Scotland, there’s no hope of every campus in the UK having one before the start of term.

And we need to be aware of the information needs of the local community. Rumours and perceptions of student behaviour will already be circulating in areas more used to complaining about on street car parking and late night noise. It is absolutely vital that providers are transparent with their local communities about what is happening and what they are doing to mitigate any issues.

For avowedly civic universities the big test will be whether to publish data and information about outbreaks and their responses to them – keeping the local community informed and closing down rumours, but risking national headlines that could affect wider perceptions.

There could also be continued pressure on universities to undertake asymptomatic testing – and though some have the resource to do that, it’s not clear that the technology is advanced enough to be confident that all asymptomatic cases would be captured, and if they were, there are unanswered questions about how this could skew national and local data about infection rates, and thus cloud the response.

Rather than enhanced national coordination, universities need governments to work on putting the conditions in place to support effective local integration of monitoring and response to Covid-19 outbreaks.

It would certainly beat telling universities in a loud slow voice that they need to communicate with their students. Assuming they’re already doing that, there needs to be a plan in place for the instances when their best efforts don’t actually have the power to conquer the desire of young people to have a nice time.

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