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More questions than answers on student engagement and the energy crisis

With winter approaching, Michelle Morgan highlights the questions we still need to answer on student and staff support
This article is more than 1 year old

Michelle Morgan is Dean of Students at the University of East London. 

As universities start the new academic year, the government has finally announced details of the Energy Bill Relief Scheme for non-domestic customers – but it won’t help every institution.

Some providers will have signed a fixed rate contract – so should an institution find itself paying more than this for power, they will pay the capped rate and government will pay the remainder.

And some providers do produce large amounts of their own energy – while for others this is an activity that is being developed.

But though we know that some providers may have had the foresight (or capacity) to increase the fuel budget for this coming year, others may have none of these initiatives in place – so the financial impact could be huge.

Known knowns

Back at the start of June, I wrote about the impending cost of living crisis for students and suggested ways universities could support students in the coming academic year. I suggested that students may have to be strategic about coming onto campus due to travel costs so attendance may be lower.

There has been ongoing discussion about which students could be most affected by fuel poverty, the impact on learning, and what to expect in the coming term.

Campus engagement

So now we know the government’s energy approach and strategy, will we actually see a possible change in engagement behaviour of students and staff in the coming autumn and winter months?

With home fuel costs set to substantially rise even with personal price caps put in place, and with regulatory requirements for higher education institutions to ensure students return to face to face teaching, could we actually see higher attendance on campus of students and staff because it is warmer for them to be there than where they reside, and cheaper as they can charge their devices?

Will any of the approaches adopted by higher education establishments be enough though to cover the increased usage? And how could higher numbers on campus have an impact on security, and health and safety?


We clearly need to plan for higher than normal attendance so we are not caught out. There are a number of practical issues that this will throw up, especially for estates departments.

Space management

Libraries are places that are always heavily used by students, and are likely to be a popular space especially this coming year. So how will use be monitored and managed so numbers do not exceed capacity?

Not all institutions have a room booking panel outside a room enabling students to know when the space is available for them to use. How will this be managed so that teaching time isn’t lost by academics who have to ask students who are not due to be taught there, to leave? Or will all teaching space not be allowed to be used unless booked? Could some spaces be allocated for non-teaching?

Universities stay open late into the evening but if more students decide to stay longer on campus more security staff may be required to manage larger numbers.

If students and staff want to charge their devices on campus, are their adequate charging points and how is demand fairly managed?

During Covid-19, practical hands-on experience in spaces such as laboratories and workshops were reduced. Assessments were adapted to deal with this. Could this be required again because of energy costs?

If we have a harsh cold winter, how possible will it be to keep areas warm enough for use so that it doesn’t fall below a legal temperature level?

Advice to students

What different advice do we need to give students to navigate this 180 degree change in behaviour compared to the past two years?

Do we need to be more proactive in giving students safety advice on travelling home at night if they have spent most of the day at the university?

And could this include guidance on how to be fuel efficient in your residence? Turning off heating isn’t always fuel efficient especially if the property is not well insulated. It can take more energy to warm it up than if it was left ticking over on a low heat. There could also be advice offered on the cheapest way to cook meals, whether this takes the form of guidance on the type of cooking device used, or measures to encourage group cooking to reduce cost.

The winter cold can also lead to illness. We have spent the last two years encouraging students and staff not to come onto campus if they have Covid-19 or are ill to prevent spread, but if that is the warmest place for students to be, how do we manage this?

As with Covid-19, there are many unknown unknowns that we will have to manage. But unlike with the pandemic, government support and advice on campus safety won’t be too little and too late – it is unlikely to arrive at all.

One response to “More questions than answers on student engagement and the energy crisis

  1. “Turning off heating isn’t always fuel efficient especially if the property is not well insulated. It can take more energy to warm it up than if it was left ticking over on a low heat.”

    This is 99% urban myth. The basic physics is that the energy required to maintain the property at the same temperature for a period will equal the energy radiated from it during the period. The energy required to heat it back to its original temperature after the period of cooling will also equal the energy which has been radiated from it during the period. But if the property is cooler during the period, then less heat will be radiated from it, so less energy used. (The other 1% is a possible exception involving the operational technicalities of modulating condensing boilers, which may waste more energy if asked to heat the house quickly. But even in this case, you’d almost certainly be better letting the house cool down and setting a timer for it warm gently before you get in.)

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