Pushing student societies underground would threaten community safety

As the UK cracks down on socialising, Jim Dickinson wonders whether a heavy handed interpretation might damage students' education and community safety.

What was that Mark Twain quote again about never letting your lectures and seminars interfere with your education?

All summer now, students’ unions and their clubs and societies have been thinking carefully about this “return to campus” being foisted upon them.

It’s been a difficult balancing act. Guidance on social distancing and Covid secure campuses has tended to be confusing, contradictory and difficult to interpret. At times there have been differences of view between universities and SUs – I’ve heard tales for example of universities pressuring SUs to run face to face Freshers’ Fairs when the SU had wanted to go online, and SU’s that had planned safe and socially distant face-to-face fairs only to be told “no” by a health and safety zealot.

The balancing act on all of these things is not easy. On the one hand plenty felt the pressure when Universities UK pre-announced in mid-June that 87 per cent of universities were “intending to offer in-person social opportunities to students”, a commitment made significantly ahead of most students’ unions being able to actually weigh up the risks.

Some had decided to advise their societies not to run face to face activity. Others had concluded that well managed, risk assessed and physically distanced student led activities is safer than pushing all student contact underground in a pandemic, or locking students in their bedrooms for a year with a daily online lecture and zoom quiz.

Super simple

By a fortnight or so ago, most were about to or had already announced their plans. But then we got that spike in cases caused by the “affluent young”, Matt Hancock taking several hours to explain his ”super simple rule of six”, and Boris begging students to behave “for the sake of your education and your parents’ and your grandparents’ health”.

At this point for some SUs panic set in with particular reference to the activities of clubs and societies. In truth the “rule of six” represents very little change other than what had previously been official Covid guidance being simplified and given legal weight. Crucially, all along, SUs had been working with universities on the assumption that restrictions on “social activity” would not include (well managed, risk assessed and physically distanced) educational activity – and much of what SUs and their clubs and societies do is educational.

The important thing to remember is that the measure is being introduced to clamp down on household transmission (for example, through house parties and visits) and builds on measures to clamp down on so-called “illegal raves”. The measure was never designed to clamp down on a risk assessed and socially distant gathering of the Disney society holding a film screening. It is designed to make it harder for that society to organise a house party.

In the primary coloured world of the TV studios, we are able easily to differentiate between “education” and “social activity”. For the Government, there’s lectures (education) and then there’s pub crawls (social activity). But what if a lecturer holds a face to face meet and greet? What if an archeological society hosts a well managed, risk assessed and physically distanced guest talk? If five students meet (safely) to discuss a group project, that’s education. If they start chatting about last night’s TV, do they have to disperse?

Now in the earlier phase of the pandemic when most of the rules we were expected to follow were, in fact, “guidelines”, these sorts of grey area inconsistencies didn’t matter so much – journalists would pick them up on social media, point them out at press conferences and politicians could always say “well people should use their common sense”.

But that was in an earlier phase of the pandemic – and now things have become more serious. Guidelines have become law. Universities have been asked to convert some aspects into disciplinary codes. Students are being threatened with fines, eviction, and expulsion if they break the rules. So given that, you’ll forgive me for becoming that person and for demanding a little more in the way of precision even if it sounds like pedantry.

Cheer up sleepy Jim

Good news came on Thursday morning. First, DfE said that providers should support their students to socialise in Covid-secure environments and should identify safer social activities for students:

We are aware of the planning already underway for Freshers’ events that provide Covid-secure entertainment activities in ways that comply with public health guidance”.

Good stuff.

Later the stuff about gathering size limits also got clarified:

Businesses and venues following Covid-secure guidelines can host larger groups, provided they comply with the law. This is also the case for events in public outdoor spaces that are organised by businesses, charitable or political organisations, and public bodies, provided they take reasonable steps to mitigate the risk of transmission, in line with Covid-secure guidance and including completion of a risk assessment.

Larger gatherings are also permitted, if they are reasonably necessary for work purposes or, at an educational facility, reasonably necessary for the purposes of education. Providers should also follow wider guidance on what you are able to do during the coronavirus outbreak. In all cases, it is the responsibility of the HE provider to ensure that all official events are in compliance with the guidance and that officially registered student groups are aware of their obligation to comply with this guidance.

Most SUs at this point breathed a sigh of relief. But then on Friday, news started to circulate around students’ unions that that might not be the position after all. I am reliably informed from various sources that at a meeting of Michelle Donelan’s higher education task force last week, this issue of the “rule of six” and the activities of SUs and societies was discussed.

The feedback from the Minister was that while a gathering (in England) of more than six would be fine for “teaching, work and in halls”, six would be the limit for “anything social” – the clear implication of which was that student society events would be banned – although there would, of course, be other exemptions for organised team sports.

Cue several panicked senior university types bowling in and telling their SUs to shut down most of the stuff they had already planned that was face to face.

It’s the children who are wrong

What’s extraordinary is that the comments are not an accurate representation of what we think the legal position is, they contradict the guidance from DfE on Thursday morning, and they appear to demonstrate a complete misunderstanding of what happens at student society events.

For example – the exemption is not “for teaching” (or as some ministers have said, “for schools”, it’s (in England phrased as) for “the provision of education”. Again for those at the back – student society events are one of the component activities of Charity Commission registered students’ unions, which only exist to advance education; they can (and in this case should) be subject to detailed and rigorous risk assessments, management and mitigations; and the alternative is that these groups meet anyway, underground, in a much riskier way.

Think about it like this. A lecturer hosting a safe and socially distanced film screening is fine, but EnviroSoc doing it in the same room in the same way isn’t? Which will mean they do it around someone’s house instead?

Does it surprise me that student sport is somehow being lifted out as being OK whilst student societies are not? Not really, but I do know the equality impact that this assertion would have. Home students are around 33 per cent more likely to take part in sports clubs than international students, with a similar differential for BaME students. Student sports clubs are disproportionately white. Student societies do much better on first in family and commuter membership. You get the gist.

Exploiting a loophole

What could they be getting up to? Southampton’s WAMsoc could be cracking on with widening access to medical higher education for children from less privileged backgrounds. Manchester’s Archaeology Soc could be running research seminars, led by academics on a range of relevant archaeological topics. Plymouth’s Student Minds group could be campaigning for and raising awareness of mental health issues on campus. Winchester’s Creative Writing Society could be doing weekly sessions that regularly involve games, specialist sessions, and workshopping. All well managed, risk assessed and physically distanced student led activities that provide an alternative to isolation or household pre-drinks that now have no nightclub to move on to.

There’s about 25,000 of these things around the UK providing an education. If we crack down too hard on them, a really large proportion of them will just disappear – it takes years to build these things up, with all the benefits they bring. And it’s threads like this from the OfS Student Panel Chair that remind us that characterising student societies merely as “social” is dangerous and offensive.

Even properly managed, risk assessed and socially distanced “niche activism” is safer than pushing all student contact underground in a pandemic. As this highly instructive piece on the University of Southern California makes clear – away from the headlines, it’s not the big raves that matter. It’s a game of Monopoly among friends. A study group with a few classmates. Dinner while chatting in the comfort of student apartments. “These are the small group gatherings that are the source of the ongoing surge of Covid-19 infections among students at USC”, and we could be about the make the same silly mistake.

Maybe things are different in Wales. In this article – which includes quotes from Welsh Education Minister Kirsty Williams – Glyndwr says its running a socially distanced Freshers Fair. Are Freshers’ Fairs part of your education in Wales but not in England?

In any event, it would nice to get some clarity fast, some brave leadership from some senior university types, and some space on campus to make it happen. Nobody is suggesting that continuing SU and society activities is about disregarding community safety. Ultimately, now that the “one million migration” is happening anyway, it’s about protecting community safety.

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