Last minute changes to return to campus guidance in England

The Westminster government has announced a last minute revised approach to January for universities. Jim Dickinson and David Kernohan doubt it's the last of the changes that will be needed.

There are minor but significant changes to the plan for the new year for universities in England.

Former Westminster Health Secretary and chair of the health select committee Jeremy Hunt spoke for many in the commons, when during the debate on Matt Hancock’s not-quite-a-national-lockdown statement, he posed the following question:

In September we came to regret allowing university students to go back en masse, but some universities are going to start to go back from next week. Why, in the middle of winter, when the NHS is under such pressure — when we have a dangerous new strain of the virus — are we taking such huge risks? Shouldn’t our entire focus of the next 8 to 12 weeks be on saving lives, getting the first dose of the vaccine out to every single vulnerable person stopping the NHS collapsing?”

As had happened earlier in the day on Radio 4 to avoid thunder theft, Hancock referred him to Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, whose subsequent statement focussed inevitably on schools – but did briefly reference what will become modest changes to the guidance on universities for England.

Staggering reminder

You’ll remember that the plan for the new year was to stagger the start of the year by course, with the… interesting assumption that students studying away from home would not arrive until their in-person teaching starts – and as soon as it does, still making them move house again to experience even 0 hours teaching a week. It’s the run up to Christmas in reverse – only this time students were to get their two lateral flow tests after, rather than before, their arrival.

That is still the plan, and is clearly still a silly idea – students who study away from home moving to a new area is the risk, and they can’t take a test before they leave unless they’re living in an area which is offering community testing programmes. The right thing to do would be to test all students before they travel, not after. There would still be some cases, but not anything like as many. But we are where we are – we’re testing on arrival.

What’s changed for England via a letter from universities minister Michelle Donelan is a major shortening of the list of subjects that are allowed to start in the first “window” (which runs from wb 4 January to wb 18 January) and the numbers we’re now expecting to get a test.

A short list of courses like medicine and nursing are still in that first window. Everything else moves to window 2 – which officially still runs for a fortnight across week beginning 25 January and week beginning 1 February – significantly reducing the period of staggering for the majority of students, although there’s a suggestion that that window will now be extended too:

As a result of the new developments, we are unfortunately having to ask you to restrict the number of practical students returning from 4 January to those who are reading subjects* in the following subject areas:

Medicine & dentistry

Subjects allied to medicine/health (see detailed list below)

Veterinary science

Education (initial teacher training)

Social work

Courses which require Professional, Statutory and Regulatory Body (PSRB) assessments and or mandatory activity which is scheduled for January and which cannot be rescheduled.

(*You’ve got to love that reference to “reading” a subject in there!)

All remaining courses are to be offered online from the beginning of term. Given rising infection rates, the “return of all other students” should be paused until at least the week commencing 25 January – Donelan says the government will review this decision and provide further communication to providers in the week commencing 18 January.

On the basis of that review, it will ask providers to plan for the staggered return of further students, prioritising those who will most benefit from in-person provision, and will “work with the Office for Students and the Office of the Independent Adjudicator” to discuss the impact of these measures (which is code for “find a way to help providers to implement changes without having to dole out refunds”).

Students allowed

There’s also a list of types of student that universities are reminded should be exempt from the “stay away” call and given appropriate support and access to study space on campus:

International students, including those who have remained in the UK and those who have arrived and do not have alternative accommodation.

Students without access to appropriate study spaces or facilities in their vacation accommodation.

Students who have remained in their university accommodation over the winter break.

Those requiring additional support, including those with mental health issues.

Students on placements where the placement provider has COVID secure measures in place, is permitted to open based on the relevant local restrictions and is content for placements to continue.

Universities are told that commuter students should only access campus facilities if they fall into one of the above exemptions, although quite what else commuter students would have been doing other than remaining in their accommodation over the winter break is anyone’s guess.

It does bizarrely mean that an international student living with a commuter student’s family can pop onto campus, but the commuter student can’t – although how that might be policed is anyone’s guess.

PGR? For the “avoidance of doubt”, researchers and research students are to be treated on the same basis as employees (except for, you know, in relation to pay, conditions or employment rights):

Where they are able to work from home, they should do so, but those who require access to specialist facilities for their work should be able to do so.

Oh, and students’ unions get some recognition this time around, which is a very welcome development:

Once again, thank you for your continued support of students and please pass on my thanks to all your staff and students’ unions who have ensured that students are being supported over the winter break.

Global Britain

International arrivals? Well it’s never too late – except when it is:

Our advice for international students travelling from overseas for the Spring term is to consider whether they in fact need to travel to the UK at this time, particularly if their course does not require them to be on campus from 4 January. Those students should consider delaying if travel arrangements can be rearranged without undue costs.

What a warm welcome! It does all rather beg the question for January arrivals – if you can afford to junk your plane ticket, why would you arrive now at all if you can put off the start until September?

Bad news week

Now if you believe that spreading the start of in-person teaching over a number of weeks reduces viral spread, the bad news is that we appear to have just created a more concentrated arrival period in three weeks time than we saw in September. Or perhaps we’re now suggesting delaying student arrival for in-person teaching until late February, or even March. Who knows?

If on the other hand you believe that students studying away from home will arrive back whenever they want given they’ve paid for their housing, the bad news for you is that there’s no plan to compensate students for their rent or reduce the occupation density of their accommodation when they get back – which is where the problem was last term.

As we noted from Michelle Donelan’s letter before Christmas, lateral flow testing is only worth it if the tests are accurate and if most students take part (we don’t have numbers from England but Scotland’s are hardly reassuring). You might ask how on earth we’re about to launch into January without even a preliminary official analysis on the December university lateral flow testing exercise’s efficacy or take up – we don’t seem to have anything other than this study from Birmingham.

There was nothing on accuracy concerns from Williamson, but as signalled in the pre-Xmas Michelle Donelan letter, on take up the assumption is that “all” students should be expected by universities to show they have taken their two tests (with negative results, obviously) before being allowed to use campus facilities or receive in-person teaching. Those who can’t or won’t get tested have to self-isolate for 10 days, and to force compliance universities have to return data on students declaring what they’ve done to DfE via OfS.

As a result, that’s now a hell of a lot of students to get tested in what may amount to a two week window. If too many take part early, it’ll suggest that universities haven’t been trying hard enough to persuade students to stay away, and no-one will want to return numbers on students not taking part. So even if universities take up Michelle Donelan’s suggestion of enforcing the staggered arrival via behavioural contracts, there are now clear but bizarre incentives for both students and universities to not immediately test if a student arrives into a university town or city ahead of time!

Or maybe the eventual arrival of students without major practical components will now extend across late February and March – but once you do that you have to amend student finance regs, and more importantly you have to ask yourself – are we really making students that study away from home come back for roughly a month, in the hope that we won’t have to shell out for tuition fee and rent rebates?

Later, PM Boris Johnson said that every secondary school pupil will be tested both as they return, and regularly thereafter. There’s still no word on whether that will be the expectation for university students for next term – for the second time this year a section in the Michelle Donelan letter is headed “Testing on arrival and during term” without any reference to testing during the term in the body text. The UCU response argues that a regime of continuous testing in every university presents “far too many logistical challenges”.

Unresolved concerns

All sorts of people (especially parents) will continue to be hopping mad about paying for accommodation that students can’t use, with this line unaccompanied by any sense of a rent rebate or opportunity to cancel a contract:

All students should be encouraged to remain in their vacation accommodation until the resumption of their face-to-face teaching, wherever possible, to minimise travel over the next few crucial weeks.

More broadly, with student concerns over quality and value boiling up, maybe the regulator will keep an eye on what’s going on – you’ll recall it announced that it would be “actively monitoring” universities moving into DfE Tier 3 or 4. But given DfE tiers is a system that’s not really being used, it’s odd that OfS has said nothing to revise its already thin approach that DK looked at when it was announced.

The quality and value concerns are real. Most undergraduate students should now prepare to study online and remotely for most of this term. If this is clear to us it should be clear to DfE and should have been announced today. But it hasn’t been. The plan amounts to dangling the prospect of in-person teaching in the near future and putting off difficult decisions as a result. It’s a rotten way to treat everyone.

Even if you shut your eyes over restricted access to campus facilities, and you put your fingers in your ears over calls for rent rebates both in the university and private sector, for many students there are also now major pressures on the academic year. Have we fixed the problems for students who don’t have suitable study space at home? Or for those who rely on university wifi? Or who usually would be fine, but can’t compete with parents working from home, or their siblings doing schoolwork?

The Universities UK statement certainly suggests that there needs to be more thought on all this:

Today’s announcement will understandably raise further issues and uncertainty – for students, universities and staff – which will need to be addressed by government over the coming weeks, including the need for financial support, regulatory flexibility and assessment changes.”

As usual, Williamson’s statement, Labour’s response and the ensuing debate did discuss the digital divide and learning loss due to disruption – but only in relation to school students. University students appear to be mysteriously exempt from such concerns for politicians.

And while there are some stunts universities can pull to postpone the practical elements of courses and amend awards to remove their necessity, most of them have already been pulled – going well beyond the meaningful limits of credibility in many cases. It may well be possible to complete a furniture design or events management degree without ever leaving the house, but the more we pretend it does the job, the harder they’ll find it to do the job.

The Michelle Donelan letter at least recognises the issue in relation to PSRBs, although seems to snub QAA in the process:

We know you will be concerned about students on courses which require Professional, Statutory and Regulatory Body (PSRB) approval. Wherever possible, we expect that assessments, placements and other mandatory elements of these courses should be rescheduled until the wider return of students. I encourage you to speak to the relevant PSRBs to explore options to do so.

I will also work with Universities UK to convene a discussion with the PSRBs about how to mitigate the impact of these restrictions so that students – and in particular finalists – do not miss out on qualifying. However, I know there will be a small number of cases where students may not be able to qualify with professional accreditation if on-site learning or exams/assessments are not held in January and cannot be rescheduled. In these limited cases, these students can return as planned.

In an alternate universe, the government would have clocked all of this weeks ago, pre-announced campus closures this term, stumped up for rent rebates, and asked students and their unions to volunteer to help get the vaccine into people’s arms via vaccination centres in university sports halls. We know they would have stepped up to serve if only they’d been asked.

Some voices in the sector have argued that guidance should come out this late, so that it’s up to date. But almost of the issues “guidance” solves have been grimly predictable from weeks and sometimes months out – and the lack of notice means we can’t plan properly, piling unnecessary pressure onto staff and blithely assuming that students can cope with the disruption. It’s a false assumption.

Crucially, if those students who could complete the year online had been in that mode all year, we’d have had time to sort out solutions for that can’t. But as ever, we are where we are, and time is running out. For a large group of students and courses, we’re going to need to extend the academic year, surely?

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