This article is more than 3 years old

Let’s avoid another groundhog day on universities, regulators and safety

As Indie SAGE publishes a new charter on Covid at work, Jim Dickinson tries to clarify responsibilities for keeping students, staff and citizens safe.
This article is more than 3 years old

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

You can’t learn or teach if you don’t feel safe, but the question of safety and the responsibilities that providers of higher education do or don’t have around it have never been super clear.

And that’s especially true when we’re talking not about buildings or plug sockets, but managing other people’s behaviour to create a “safe environment”.

The Office for Students (OfS) has published another of Advance HE’s evaluation reports into its Catalyst Fund projects on safeguarding students – this time with a focus on a cluster of eleven schemes designed to address hate crime and incidents on the grounds of religion or belief.

It’s all fascinating stuff, but if you’ve read the other reports in the series on sexual misconduct and hate crime and online harassment projects, some of the problems are hauntingly familiar.

  • As previously, a number of those interviewed identified the risk of being too reliant on a small number of individuals with a passion for a specific area of student safeguarding.
  • As previously, project teams highlighted “a number of challenges” associated with student engagement, including a difficulty engaging with students with a range of identity characteristics.
  • As previously, some teams were worried about the possible “misinterpretation” by senior managers of results that may arise from the projects, for example a rise in reported hate incidents.The “possible perception” was a concern of some, and ensuring the university “isn’t portrayed in a bad light” was a concern for another.

One of the ways you might solve all those issues is by establishing regulation which could then set out clearly the expectations you have of providers when it comes to safety – over matters like governance, “whole institution” culture, student and staff engagement in policy development and monitoring, data collection and dissemination, and senior leadership ownership and communication. After all,

We have not seen evidence that inconsistency is because of principled differences between providers, or that it reflects diverse preferences from students on how these issues are managed: this suggests either a lack of clarity over expectation, or a lack of prioritisation”

That was back in January when OfS launched a consultation on regulation in this space. But it got paused because of the pandemic, with no news on when it might resume. And when OfS pauses a consultation, providers pause their policy development too.

So all of those problems will continue, at multiple providers, into yet another academic year – ten years after NUS published “Hidden Marks” and five years after the Secretary of State called a round table. By implication, some universities still won’t be “safe”.

Safety valves

Ironically, we might be stumbling into similar safety problems over the issue that has caused the pause.

You might recall this piece from last October where I noted that if you’re a students’ union in a mainstream university in England or Wales, you’re regulated directly by the Charity Commission – which has a strategic aim to ensure that charities take reasonable steps to protect their beneficiaries (ie students), and others who come into contact with the charity from harm.

The commission expects SUs to make sure all trustees, employees, volunteers and students to know about safeguarding and people protection; have appropriate policies and procedures in place; know to spot and refer or report concerns; have a clear system of referring or reporting to relevant organisations; set out risks and how they will manage them in a risk register which is regularly reviewed; and be quick to respond to concerns and carry out appropriate investigations.

Over Covid-19, the commission says that

it is critical to ensure that charities protect and safeguard their beneficiaries, volunteers and staff”.

… and then directs charity trustees like SU officers to its extensive safeguarding guidance and its bespoke guidance and regime surrounding serious (safeguarding) incidents during and related to the pandemic.

It’s all fair enough – but universities are charities too, just regulated differently. OfS as the “principal regulator” of universities as charities in England has very little to say on safeguarding, safety, or serious incidents over Covid. If SU Presidents are reading all the above in relation to their subset of activity, are we confident that university governors are doing the same? And who would tell them to? And check that they were?

Back on March 9th OfS wrote to providers in England asking for numbers of (suspected and confirmed) Covid cases and other incident handling information – a so-called “F3 notice” – but then withdrew it. I don’t think it revised that ask. It begs the question – why was the higher education regulator keen to collect data then but not now?

And it generates wider questions about leadership and accountability. You can make a campus “safer” by pushing student activities off it, restricting room bookings and locking your doors at dusk. But that might push that activity underground, and make it less safe. Is the duty campus or community safety? And whose duty is it?

Generally, all four governments show signs of wanting the responsibility for Covid transmission prevention to be “on” universities. But that means that everyone’s plans are different – even, preposterously, between providers on issues like testing that are within the same city. What if, on this question of Covid safety,

We have not seen evidence that inconsistency is because of principled differences between providers, or that it reflects diverse preferences from students on how these issues are managed: this suggests either a lack of clarity over expectation, or a lack of prioritisation”

…all of that is true again?

Maybe the local authority could coordinate, but provider data is a nightmare. Not only do you not know what you can demand to know, if you’re a Director of Public Health in a local area how would you even know who the higher education providers are? That long tail of small providers that are franchised from universities – try finding a list unless you reverse engineer the unistats/DiscoverUni database. And that’s not to mention those that would have been in “registered basic”, or the ones that don’t appear on any lists because they’re in OfS registration limbo and therefore not on DiscoverUni, the OfS register or the Tier 4 list publically.

And in our long tail of higher education providers – and in some mainstream ones – the idea that there isn’t any regulatory body actually checking whether or how any guidance if followed is odd. Not every provider on the OfS register is up to this, and not all of them are saintly either. What happens if a provider ignores the advice? Can a student complain? How would they know?

Employment safety

An alternative would be to look at the issue of safety through the prism of employment. The latest intervention from our old friends at Indie SAGE is a joint bit of work with the Hazards campaign, and is focussed on a “safe return to work” with an associated “Safe Workplace Charter”.

Its concern is the “push” back to work – in the news over the urge for people to return to offices but actually framed in an announcement that Boris Johnson made on 14th July about “going back to work”:

Instead of government telling people to work from home, we are going to give employers more discretion, and ask them to make decisions about how their staff can work safely”

That could mean of course continuing to work from home, which is one way of working safely and which has worked for many employers and employees,”

Or it could mean making workplaces safe by following Covid Secure guidelines. Whatever employers decide, they should consult closely with their employees, and only ask people to return to their place of work if it is safe.”

See also: It’s for universities to decide what to do. Maybe blended is good. They should consult people and follow vague guidelines. But government is not going to take responsibility for this.

Indie SAGE figures that given that this “is a matter of life and death”, telling employers they ”should do this or that” isn’t good enough – both because of the risk of infection in the workplace, and the risk that the workplace becomes a site in which there is transmission that can then be brought back into the community.

Its solution is to make clear respective responsibilities:

  • Employers would have to consult with workers and trade unions to develop and publish a Covid Safe Plan (CSP) on web sites; work constructively with staff and their union safety representatives; ensure staff with symptoms, or who have contacts of those with symptoms self-isolate and get tested as advised and are paid normal wages while off work, should have access to sick pay in these cases, and should ensure the rapid reporting of any illnesses to both HSE and local public health bodies for tracing purposes.
  • The Health and Safety Executive, local authorities and other regulators would be required to provide help and advice to employers in developing the CSR, inspect and certify workplaces as a condition of reopening, conduct regular unannounced checks of workplaces and, where they are in violation of their certified CSP close them down until the violations are rectified, and ensure unions can effectively check on employers’ compliance with CSPs.
  • Governments would have to provide resources for employers to implement a covid-safe plan and universal access to sick pay for all staff who have to self-isolate (irrespective of employment status or normal wage level), legislate to ensure that effective employment rights apply so that no worker is penalised, for self-isolating or reporting unsafe working conditions, and provide sufficient powers and funding to the HSE and Local Authorities to fulfil their normal and covid specific obligations – including certification of CSPs and the regular monitoring of workplaces.

It’s an interesting framework – its clarity is attractive. Would it work for universities? Maybe.

Perhaps the HSE does have an important role to play in what’s being planned. Maybe OfS should take a lead. Local authorities clearly have some powers and duties. Maybe the Charity Commission should clarify its role here. UKRI? The funding councils in the nations? Perhaps I can complain to the OIA, or the CMA, or the ASA.

Whoever is responsible, we are likely to be living with this virus for some time still. Given the way it is handled can be “a matter of life and death”, students, staff and the public probably need to know quickly who is responsible for what – and to be reassured that government has given them the expertise, the resource, the plans and the powers that are necessary to be successful in keeping us safe.

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