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Lifting the lockdown means thinking through the implications for student conduct

When a university brings a student to a town or city but keeps them largely off campus because of Covid-19, what happens next? Jim Dickinson paints a picture.
This article is more than 3 years old

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

As I type, there are still some major higher education providers in the UK that would investigate an incident of sexual harassment in a lecture theatre, but not 5 ft outside that building on a public main road – because “jurisdiction”.

This position feels like it ought to have been untenable since the invention of the telephone, the advent of off campus student accommodation or since that moment in the 90s when students started to be given email addresses on “Pine”.

Twist and shout

But whether it was untenable back in February or not, it surely is now. Providers still trying to maintain this excuse for dismissing legitimate student conduct complaints – whilst refusing requests for refunds on the basis that the student experience has successfully transitioned online – might at least have a senior position going for “truth twister” Dom Cummings if he’s in need of work by the time this blog goes up.

This issue of jurisdiction will hopefully get solved soon enough, if OfS ever gets around to restarting its consultation on the issue of harassment and sexual misconduct that got paused back in March. At this rate there’s a clear and present danger that we will start yet another academic year with the Office for “Students” having no discernible policy, strategy or expectations on what has basically been the biggest student issue on campus other than mental health for a past decade.

That consultation included thorny issues when it came to the conduct agenda. How does responsibility and jurisdiction work with partners? What about year abroad providers? Placement employers? How does it work when students might also be university staff, or SU volunteers?

Obviously the #1 issue to sort immediately is ensuring that policies are up to scratch in the online context, which we’ve covered before on the site. But it’s in the physical easing of the lockdown that the potential next major challenge on conduct comes.

Don’t blame me

The key side grumble about student mental health is that it is not the role of universities to act as the NHS, just as provider after provider has complained cover the past few months that when it comes to student hardship, it’s not the role of APP or student welfare teams to act as the DWP.

Similarly, the contours of the debate about student conduct have often involved voices grumbling that it is not the role of universities to be the Police, or the courts – whether we’re talking about sexual misconduct, rowdy parties in HMOs or initiation ceremonies run by the university football club.

The big technical change in recent years over sexual harassment and misconduct has been a profound shift that previously allowed universities to argue that any conduct constituting a potential criminal offence ought to investigated and tried exclusively externally. Thankfully, not any more – universities can and should set standards of conduct both within in the academic community they foster, and between that community and the place they inhabit.

Over the past 30 to 40 years we’ve seen wider political changes too. Libertarian “freedom to” attitudes, previously “owned” by “groovy” baby boomers are now grasped by the Brexiteer right, whilst attitudes calling for protection, safety and security (“freedom from harm”) have been wholesale adopted by the radical left. This is arguably what drives much of the bafflement from some about university campuses, student “snowflakes” and the freedom of speech debate.

Sober up

But that age old John Stuart Mill debate between protection and freedom from vs opportunity and freedom to may well be about to morph into something much more… sobering. A group of students at Melbourne University’s Trinity College have been kicked off campus for breaking social distancing rules to throw a party. Twenty-four students won’t be allowed back until next semester following Monday night’s common room gathering.

Across Australia, the US and New Zealand, there are already crackdowns on student parties being held in breach of local lockdown rules that tentatively create social bubbles or ban gatherings of more than 5 or 10 people. And these are countries with a far smaller proportion of students away from home, more on campus accommodation and smoother town-gown relations than us.

How to you get get students to behave? The University of Colorado at Boulder has already developed your classic egalitarian/education solution – the training course. First-year students will even get an extended version with modules on the epidemiology of Covid-19 and behavioural expectations to stop its spread. Meanwhile Embry-Riddle College has adopted a “campus influencers” program in which SU officers, academic staff, key student BNOCs and others will ask “rule flouters” to put their masks back on (the sort of initiative beloved by the likes of Toby Young). Everyone on campus “now wears a badge reminding others to stay six feet away”, and the university is printing T-shirts with slogans like “Respect my wingspan”. It’s less “sticky campus” and more “sprayed with student repellent”.

All of which is fine, but just like all the other “training and nudging will save us” solutions, at some point you have to look at enforcement. And the problem here is that it’s easy to imagine that we’ll see two very distinct groups of students in a socially distant autumn. Those that strictly observe that distance on health or moral grounds and have a miserably lonely experience as a result; and those that don’t – because they’re desperate to socialise, feel rebellious, or just want to argue that they ought to be able to have friends round for someone’s 19th if Dom Cummings can pop to a castle for his wife’s birthday.

To now, student drinking initiatives have largely focused on “nudge” messaging from SUs, Public Health England and charities – and efforts to change the conduct of the licensed trade (partly through price). What all of this has resulted in, coupled with the invention of the internet in your pocket and/or the mobile phone, is a profound change in student behaviour.

That’s partly a story told often through the optic of the decline of the SU bar and session drinking, the rise of the campus coffee bar and supposedly more health conscious students. But it’s also a story told through the woes of nightclub owners that lament that students don’t turn up until after midnight, are gone by 2, and don’t spend anything when they’re there. It’s a story about “pres”.

Staying in for the summer

There have always been student house parties. But over the past two decades, a large majority of student drinking has moved into minor and much more regular versions of them. Where once people met in the local pub or SU bar to go on a night on the tiles in the early evening, students now “pre-drink” at each other’s homes, in large groups. Every night.

Sometimes these groups are formed around student societies, or sports clubs. Sometimes they form around course mates, or home country or region. Sometimes it’s groups of student staff that work in hospitality or a group of students that happen to have shared a flat in their first year. They often involve both commuter students and those “away from home”.

What unites all of the settings and contexts is that it is one of the few remaining aspects of student life left that few have ever attempted to control or regulate – a setting hidden from the protective panopticon. What most people don’t realise is that in comparison to almost every other country in the world, student extra-curricular activity is remarkably heavily regulated for safety in the UK (a long and different story relating to mountain and hill walking, and the charity status of SUs). But what goes on tour often still stays on tour, and what happens ‘round someone’s house is private. Isn’t it?

Some have suggested – as I did in my days as an SU CEO – that if the Rugby Club wasn’t to encourage drinking alcohol at speed for reward on campus, and that if what “goes on tour” sadly can’t really “stay on tour” if it involved harm, then student clubs weren’t to do these things around someone’s house. But how would anyone know? What do you do if there’s no formal club or society? And would arguments about encroaching into students’ private lives have trumped any regulations we (or the university) introduced? Is it really for universities to develop their own versions of ASBOs?

Couple all of that with the potential that universities themselves could be operating temperature scanners and contract tracing solutions and you can see where September might end up. If you thought the complaints from local residents about noise or parking were bad now, imagine when a family phones up and argues that the student “party” house next door has caused one of Matt Hancock’s hyper-localised lockdowns, or even given them Covid-19, and caused a hospitalisation or a death.

Track and trace

This isn’t a theoretical issue. Let’s have a look at two documents that were both updated on May 27th – one on the NHS test and trace service, and DfE guidance on halls and HMOs. The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) says that as soon as you experience coronavirus symptoms, you must self-isolate for at least 7 days. And anyone else in your “household” must self-isolate for 14 days from when you started having symptoms.

How does that work for students? Well, students living in halls of residence or houses in multiple occupation (HMOs) who develop symptoms of coronavirus should self-isolate in their current accommodation. “Universities and colleges should facilitate this”, and “students should discuss this with their university or college, and with the manager of their halls if they are privately owned, or the landlord of their HMO”. In addition, if a resident of an HMO has coronavirus symptoms, “all residents must isolate for 14 days, and follow the guidance for households with possible coronavirus infection guidance”.

What’s a household? When students are living in halls of residence where someone else has symptoms of coronavirus, their institution “will” discuss the situation with PHE’s local Health Protection Team, which will carry out a risk assessment and identify who is required to take part in whole household isolation based on how closely they have been living together! Those living in private halls should inform their hall manager so they in turn can inform PHE’s local Health Protection Team. Depending on the circumstances, this would “normally include those students living in the same flat” or “on the same floor” who share cooking or washing facilities, or both.

How is this working… today, in June? Are students required to tell their provider they are locked down and with all the people in their flat/corridor? Have you set some rules that require it? And how is this going to work in September when almost every student in the country develops symptoms of Freshers’ Flu? Who’s ensuring that HMO landlords or PBSA providers know the rules? And who’s enforcing all this, both amongst students and landlords?

This doesn’t look especially possible now with a handful left in halls, let alone in September when thousands more are around, your online enrolment module falls over and the temperature scanners you’ve ordered are late being delivered.

My favourite bit? “Students in HMOs will need to discuss their circumstances with both their landlord and their institution, who should work in tandem to ensure that necessary support is in place”. AS IF.

You brought them here

On all this, just for a change, it would be great if we could avoid looking and sounding like we care more about and understand the buildings and the income streams than the lives of those that study and work with us. Tape measures, timetabling and flow signage aren’t much help if you can’t get there on the bus, for example.

The key here is that with no helpful signals on student finance arrangements for distance learning or rental accommodation bailouts, there’s not a university in the country that’s not thinking that it pretty much has to bring students to its town or city physically in some form next year.

Yet all of those providers are specifically intending that students spend much much less time on actual campus, being in some way “supervised” by contact time, facility managers or student clubs and societies. And for those that do get to live on campus – we’re asking them to pay to stay away from eachother. Well guess what. Some of them are going to want to hang out, and experience the invincibility of youth. Some of them might even have illegal lockdown parties.

As with all of these student issues, universities will be held totally responsible even if they’re not strictly to blame. Thinking through a sensible approach to these issues now – in partnership with the people that are going to be in the middle of all of this – is much wiser than being somehow surprised when that phone call is put through to you in October.

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