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Revised guidance for England on universities and Covid-19 means tiers before Christmas

The government has published its guidance for universities in England on reopening campuses. Jim Dickinson wonders if it's too little too late.
This article is more than 3 years old

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

The Department for Education has now published (at precisely 1.18am on Thursday 10 September) its long awaited revised guidance on reopening buildings and campuses.

In part it represents the government’s response to the advice it got from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) task and finish group on further and higher education, and also acts as the answer to repeated questions being asked in the media about campus reopening in light of the reported rise in cases of Covid – and the revelation that these are being driven by “affluent young people”.

As various wags have pointed out – not all students are affluent young people, but most affluent young people are (or have been or are about to be) students.

The publication was cued up earlier at the Prime Minister’s press conference, where Boris Johnson expressed gratitude to universities for their “continued cooperation and planning” [not to mention patience and clairvoyance] for the return of students, urged students not to socially gather in groups of more than six, and made clear that universities should not “send students home” in the event of an outbreak to avoid spreading the virus. Any suggestion that the government thinks of universities of as big (boarding) schools is, of course, entirely unfair.

Here we focus principally on changes to the guidance since the last iteration published on 17 July. We’ll take it as read that it’s pretty preposterous for the government to be issuing advice to universities with any significant implications for a university any later than May, let alone in mid-September.

Built like an angel six feet tall

Fascinatingly, the very first substantial change to the guidance centres on an issue we’ve looked at on the site – what we might call the blame frame game. This version notes that the reopening of campuses will bring about “a mass movement” of students, notes that this creation of new households brings with it risk, and makes clear that it is providers that the government thinks should “take a lead” on when it comes to minimising that risk:

As HE providers, you will make your own judgements about your provision, while following the latest public health guidance. However, providers should also work alongside local authorities and other agencies to ensure that you have the right plans in place to control and manage any local outbreaks.

And if that sounded almost like responsibility would be shared:

It is for an HE provider, as an autonomous institution, to identify and put in place appropriate plans, in line with this guidance and any other relevant government guidance, based on the individual circumstances of that provider.

Anyone arguing (as our own David Kernohan has done) that the responsibility for minimising risk in this context really ought to be public health officials and local government, with universities contributing, is clearly wrong – and the stage is now set for blame to be allocated when outbreaks (which, remember, SAGE thinks are highly likely) occur. If it’s not students, it’s universities.

How can we talk? Look where you’ve been

There’s an important two part section on infection control that deals with Test and Trace and local outbreak response. The former cross refers readers to a curious and separately published document called the “Higher Education coronavirus (COVID19) NHS Test and Trace handbook”, which sort of describes the current state of play with the service and the way higher education might interact with it.

Of note here:

  • A reminder that asymptomatic testing is provided only in “specific circumstances” and on the recommendation of public health experts, and that people without symptoms should not order tests except where instructed to do so (a line pushed by Matt Hancock in recent days given the national strain on testing capacity).
  • A note that “walk-through” test sites are the preferred testing channel option for students due to their improved accessibility and fast turnaround of test results, and that 200 are set to be running by the end of October. That sounds quite late to us.
  • Universities are told to make sure that students, staff, and anyone else who visits their settings, are aware of how the contact tracing process works and to promote the importance of sharing information promptly with NHS Test and Trace, and the importance of self-isolating (we looked at some specific problem aspects of this on the site here).
  • There’s a quite short section on customer and visitor logs for designated venues that implies that universities won’t be expected to collect student attendance details for the purposes of contact tracing unless a facility on campus falls into one of the designated directors (like hospitality or places of worship). That feels like a potential hole to us, not least in comparison to the Scottish guidance which goes much further.

On institutional testing programmes, the guidance makes clear that there is no expectation that this would be a service offered by all providers – and those considering doing it are given a few warnings. Providers are told to ensure they are “fully aware” of the implications, both clinical and organisational, of introducing testing programmes and of the potential limitations of any tests or test services they use.

For example – if testing programmes are to test students, organisations must consider the existing legal obligations, including those relating to health and safety, employment, data protection or equalities appropriate to their situation (e.g. age of students) and should get independent legal advice. And universities are reminded that under the Health Protection (Notification) Regulations 2010 it is a legal requirement to report cases of Covid-19, or any other notifiable disease, to PHE – and any laboratory found not to be adherent to this practice may be subject to fines.

I start to weep

The section on local outbreak response at least allocates responsibility for responding to Public Health England (PHE) health protection teams and local authorities, although in a continuation of that “big school” framing does say that providers are responsible “for ensuring that your students are safe and well looked after during their self-isolation period”, which we’re looking forward to seeing in the context of commuter students or grown adults in HMOs.

It also picks up plenty of material from the SAGE analysis – it’s fatalistic on the prospect of an increase in the number of cases and outbreaks, and repeats the call for universities to scenario plan for:

  • increased prevalence of infection locally that requires interventions on the whole community, including students and staff
  • a large-scale outbreak that may result in substantial restrictions implemented at a local level that impact on the activities of the university
  • a localised outbreak in student accommodation
  • a localised outbreak involving a particular student or staff member, faculty or department

As we said when we first saw the list in the SAGE stuff, there’s a clear interaction with the OfS expectations on warning students about changes to what’s being offered in different scenarios that universities in theory need to get consent from students over.

What’s new in here is something called “tiers of restriction”. If a university is experiencing a rise in infection rates (or there is an increase in infection rates in the local community), universities are told to work with their local Health Protection Teams and the Director of Public Health to determine the most effective measures that will help reduce transmission. That bit is not surprising.

Where things get fun is in instances where decision-making gets referred to the national level, and an area gets designated an “area of intervention”. In that scenario the government’s “Local Action Committee command structure” may recommend some level of restriction to higher education provision in such areas, although the aim will be to retain face-to-face provision where it is possible to do so safely. We get four tiers, adapted from schools:

  • Tier 1 (default position): Providers are expected to provide blended learning, with some face-to-face tuition.
  • Tier 2 (fallback position): Providers move to an “increased level” of online learning where possible. Providers prioritise the continuation of face-to-face provision based on their own risk assessment.
  • Tier 3 (where stricter measures are needed): Providers increase the level of online learning to retain face-to-face provision for priority courses (for example, clinical and medical courses), and in as limited number of situations as possible. Meanwhile students are ordered to remain in their current accommodation and not return their family home (providers are told to support students in this scenario by keeping campus services like libraries and catering open – something that proved controversial in particular with library staff and their trade unions back in March).
  • Tier 4 (last resort): The majority of provision to be online, with buildings open for essential workers only. This should include the continuation of essential research.

There’s a drafting issue here – the level of online teaching in Tier 4 is below the level in Tier 3, because “the majority” just means “more than 50%”. By the logic of Tiers 1-3, at Tier 4 all, or virtually all, teaching should be online.

What’s also interesting is that the Independent SAGE/UCU “tier” is probably level 3 on these descriptions. What we don’t know is how big an outbreak would trigger each tier – although we’d be tempted to have a tenner on that a university in England might be ordered to go beyond Tier 1 before term starts.

I’ve loosened my wallet, thanks to you

The government’s heavily trailed changes to the legal regulations surrounding “gatherings” caused much sector debate on Wednesday 9 September – in particular sending students’ unions into a panic when the proposals emerged in the press late on Tuesday 8. The fear was that the “super simple” ban on socialising in groups of more than six would scupper carefully laid plans to put on safe social events – a potential public health own goal given that carefully managed social and extra curricular activities, ideally on campus, are likely to be much safer than the alternatives – deep loneliness or significant viral transmission.

The current version of the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (No. 2) (England) Regulations 2020 provides exemptions where a gathering (in a Covid-secure environment, a dwelling or outdoors) has been organised by a recognisable “organisation” (like a charity), is properly risk assessed and is “reasonably necessary” for the provision of voluntary or charitable services, or for the purposes of education or training. Given every English students’ union is a charity and exists in law for the advancement of education, that’s enough cover for most plans – and to their relief that is reflected here:

While HE providers should communicate to students the importance of adopting safe behaviours generally, HE providers should also, where possible, support their students to socialise in Covid-secure environments (for example campus bars, Student Unions) and should identify safer social activities for students. You might do this in collaboration with your Student Union. 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.

Later this is helpfully qualified further:

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.

And if you’ve been tempted to cautiously close down student social space on campus, there’s a separate section on performing arts teaching that students’ unions will be pleased to see – not least because it helpfully frames some social activity as a component of the educational experience:

You should consider students’ desire to interact socially and creatively with other students as part of their educational experience. If possible, you could look to designate specific areas (‘creative spaces’) for students to socially and creatively interact beyond the usual teaching environment. These areas could include markings to allow for social distancing or the use of screens.

You should provide students with advice as to where these sorts of interactions would be appropriate, and how to do them as safely as possible. If tutors are not present, students should take responsibility for these sessions, and for protecting themselves and others. This might include social distancing or cleaning instruments before use.

Let’s assume that if it’s good for performing arts students, it must be good for everyone else.


If you were thinking “but what about students that are shielding”, this guidance reminds us that shielding advice for all adults and young people was “paused” on 1 August. This, it says, means that even the small number of students who will remain on the shielded patient list can also return to their provider, as can those who have family members who were shielding. Providers are told to “take account of the current advice on shielding”, which probably belies significantly more simplicity than is practical in reality.

Risk assessment

You might remember in the SAGE advice that complex passage on utilising a “hierarchy of risk” to determine whether something should happen, and if so the mitigations to allow it to happen safely. That is scooped up, simplified and spat back out here as a duty to produce risk assessments “for both working and communal environments”, which will “vary significantly based on the needs and circumstances of individual providers” and the “demographic profile of your staff and student bodies”. You don’t say!

You should then consider “proportionate mitigating measures” and share them [although notably not necessarily discuss or agree them] with staff and staff unions. This still has a buildings and activity focus – there’s no reference here to that SAGE concern about inadvertently increasing risk by driving staff and students into riskier environments, and not much of a nudge towards the reduction of in-person interaction.

Of course some people with particular characteristics may be at comparatively increased risk from coronavirus as set out in the Covid-19: review of disparities in risks and outcomes report. If an individual with significant risk factors has concerns, the guidance blithely recommends that providers discuss these with the individual and explains the measures the provider is putting in place to reduce the risks.

Hands face space bubble

There’s a chunk of “new to the guidance but hopefully not new to people doing the planning” stuff on on-campus health in here – providers are told to introduce enhanced cleaning measures, ensure that all indoor and covered areas have good ventilation, and consider how to reduce social contact and maintain social distance.

Remarkably, the guidance also has a run at keeping the dream alive of social bubbles, although hedges its bets. What is relabelled as “segmentation” is “one of the suite of possible measures” to manage and mitigate risks here, and providers are asked to “understand the potential benefits” of segmentation – although does say that there is no one model of segmentation that would “apply equally across all providers.”

As we’ve been saying for months, except in very specific circumstances for very specific types of student on specific types of courses, bubbling always has been almost impossible once it’s exposed to the realities of student life.

As with all of these government guidance documents, there is a tendency to take something we’ve been worried about since March, tell us to think about that thing, and fail to offer any help, solutions or money. “Some courses, such as vocational training, healthcare related courses, and the performing arts, may pose particular risks of aerosol, droplet and surface transmission”, says the guidance, although “any additional costs would be funded from existing budgets.”

And it probably shouldn’t come as any surprise that there’s a whole section on face coverings “where social distancing is difficult to maintain outside of teaching situations.” Universities are setting their own rules here, although the guidance reminds the sector to be mindful of exemptions, and says that face coverings are “likely to be appropriate” in campus social settings like events hosted by student clubs and societies.

How can we talk? Look where we’ve been

Whenever the government says it is “doing all it can” over an aspect of Covid we start to worry, and here the phrase is deployed over minimising risks to HE staff and students, and the communities in which HE providers are located.

First there’s a bit intriguing entitled “large gatherings” that turns out to be about the weird halls-of-residence anomaly on house parties. The government has spent most of the week touring the studios discussing household transmission and students, without revealing that that legal framework on gatherings exempts halls. This, we suspect, is partly because defining a “household” is left to whoever manages student accommodation in conjunction with PHE. We explained the issue over on Wonk Corner here.

Notwithstanding, providers are told to not permit students to have private gatherings in halls of residence that exceed the limits for gatherings in private households and would therefore breach Covid-secure guidelines. Oddly, no mention is made of the circa 200k students living in private halls.

Recognising that the mass movement of students, and the creation of new households, adds a degree of risk, the guidance just says that it expects providers “to take all reasonable actions” with their students to minimise the risk of transmission, and encourages providers to “share best practice” in order to create a “consistent approach to reopening” when working with local communities:

We will continue to work closely with the sector, Public Health England and across government, to help minimise the risk of the coronavirus (Covid-19), and help providers put in place measures that apply in their particular circumstances.

There’s a separate section on forming and defining households which doesn’t add anything to that already published, reminds us that students living in halls of residence, or HMOs, who develop symptoms should self-isolate, says that students should discuss this with their HE provider and with their landlord, and does almost nothing to address the myriad disincentives students will have to getting a test or complying with the self-isolation rules that we discussed here.

Why won’t you look at me? I live and breathe

Guidance on the arrival or return of international students to the UK, especially where students are travelling from countries not on the exemption list is textbook late – although there are no surprises here given a cross reference to Universities UK’s work on the issue three weeks ago, which arguably was also fairly late.

Notably providers told here they are responsible for ensuring their students are safe and well looked after during their self-isolation period. Compliance with that direction is pretty universal for international students in provider halls, but patchy at best for those in private halls or HMOs. Again, universities get the responsibility allocation here.

There’s also one line on international student hardship which takes the “no recourse to public funds for non-UK nationals” rule, and dumps the problem on universities:

You should also consider the needs of students, including international students, who may be suffering hardship, or are limited in their ability to travel, as a result of the coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak.

I don’t know where to begin

There’s an amusing section on comms which takes all of the SAGE stuff on compliance messaging for students and staff, and boils it down to 181 words of uncut, patronising waffle.

Providers should “take action” to promote the importance of complying with measures to reduce risk, and “this could include” things like “regular communication to staff and students”, “signs and posters” to reiterate the rules and a “clear statement of expectations of student behaviour.” Providers are also told to “consider incentives for compliance” and “disincentives for non-compliance” including, in serious cases, the use of disciplinary measures.

Please repair my broken wing

Finally, there’s a section on mental health. Allocating responsibility carefully again, providers:

…are autonomous institutions… and have a duty of care to students when delivering services, including the provision of pastoral support, and taking steps to protect the health, safety and wellbeing of students”.

Naturally, “you are experts on your own student population” and are therefore “best placed to identify the needs of your student body”, but you’re not alone. “NHS mental health services have remained open” and “we have also worked with the OfS on the recently announced Student Space platform”. So that’s all right then.

We also get a repeat of the student premium funding creative accounting, spun here as “the government has worked closely with the OfS to help clarify that providers can draw upon existing funding to provide hardship funds and support disadvantaged students …worth £256 million for academic year 2020 to 2021 towards student hardship funds, including the purchase of IT equipment and mental health support”. Of course it’s only worth £256m if you make swingeing cuts to the rest of your access and participation efforts, and even the £256m is a cut from last year’s £277m. We looked at this issue on the site here and here.

Take my independent point of view

Was all of that worth the wait? Not really. As we said in relation to the SAGE advice (and the Scottish guidance), it would be surprising if there’s much in here that good providers haven’t already thought about – and we’d be amazed if the long tail of OfS registered providers all felt able to respond to everything in here (something that those who franchise provision out to others probably should keep a close eye on).

What feels so extraordinary about the whole thing is the status quo insistence on provider autonomy. Even if we thought that was a good way to run a system in non-pandemic times, right now it just feels chaotic and ultimately quite wasteful. Is it really a good use of 404 separately registered providers’ time and resources to be individually designing Covid signage?

But what is perhaps most interesting about it all is the fatalism over the outbreaks that are coming in both the SAGE analysis that led to this guidance and the guidance itself.

Since well before lockdown in March, it has been economically and practically very difficult to stop the runaway train of the “mass migration” of students to university towns and cities. Even if we had dealt with (or dismissed) the “won’t someone think of the landlords” problem inherent in the Independent SAGE/UCU position, and even if we’d found a way to dismiss the assumed right to “rite of passage” of the young and affluent (something the A levels crisis shows is harder than it looks), the impact on local economies that depend on student migration would have been significant.

But it wouldn’t have been impossible. Even at this late stage, allowing it all to happen and issuing guidance – much of which is about dealing with its downsides when the whole year could have been “default online” – is a bold move from a government whose choice could cause major local and national restrictions to freedoms in order to control the virus. It remains the case that if it goes “well”, students could have a pretty dreadful time. And if not, pre-allocating the blame for that to students and universities may not be enough.

10 responses to “Revised guidance for England on universities and Covid-19 means tiers before Christmas

  1. ‘That sounds quite late to us’ – caused me to laugh out loud, albeit quite hysterically.

  2. Currently we’re operating in ‘tier 4’ mode, with the majority of management remaining as far off campus as possible, our H&S director hasn’t been on campus since early March and does not intend to come in at all. And thus far it’s a total fuster-cluck, one way systems ignored, contractors turning up without any COVID RAMS and no-one giving them building specific COVID safe inductions, researchers ignoring the COVID safe induction documents they have had to sign setting out rules for safe behaviours and ignoring social distancing.

    How long the sector will be able to avoid it’s responsibilities, once it’s confirmed s-too-dense ARE the infection spread vector, is the big question staff have, it’s not just COVID safety at work, it’s neighbours and friends turning against them that’s worrying them now.

  3. “(providers are told to support students in this scenario by keeping campus services like libraries and catering open – something that proved controversial with trade unions back in March).”- Not just trade unions. Everyone working in libraries felt completely outraged by our sudden elevation to essential services, and the failure to acknowledge our services were already online and available. There was a huge loss of trust and this will compound the sense of betrayal by those colleagues.

  4. Thanks for this survey Jim. Two points on online teaching:
    (1) Surely the Independent SAGE / UCU position is not ‘between Tier 2 and Tier 3’. Rather it is squarely Tier 3.
    i-SAGE report 20 August: ‘We recommend that to protect the safety of students, staff and prevent community infections all University courses should be offered remotely and online, unless they involve practical training or lab work’
    UCU press release 29 August: ‘The union said it backed recommendations in last week’s report from the Independent Sage committee that called for online learning to become universities’ default position.’
    (2) Thanks to an obvious drafting error in the dfE guidance, the level of online teaching in Tier 4 is *below* the level in Tier 3, for ‘the majority’ just means ‘more than 50%’. By the logic of Tiers 1-3, at Tier 4 *all*, or virtually all, teaching should be online.

  5. Having looked more carefully at the definitions of the four Tiers (which are far from clear) I think it is most accurate to say that, assuming that in Tier 4 virtually all teaching is online, then the i-SAGE / UCU position is between Tier 3 and Tier 4.

  6. I’ve no expertise in this area – but would it be possible to test waste water from campuses to have a decent estimate of whether infectivity was rising or not – and test based on that data? Thanks for any comments.

  7. Our COO and his senior level ‘team’ have been meeting virtually and sent out the details for how things will be operating once the students arrive (Internationals and 2nd/3rd years are on campus now) to us minions, the presentation they sent out claimed there was consultation with and involvement of the Trades Unions, as HMG/HSE require, the presentation, as far as we in the unions are concerned, does not tally with the facts as we know them.
    For example:
    Slide 3: Interfaces Staff unions: Unite, Unison. UCU. NOT HAPPENED/ING
    Slide 4: Weekly Trade Union engagement. NOT HAPPENED/ING
    Slide 6:Develop, consult Unions and approve any potential changes to staff hours. NOT HAPPENED/ING
    Slide 7: Staff Unions: Unite, Unison; UCU
    Assurance on staff safety and equity
    • Regular COO direct engagement with ED HR and Director HSR
    • External communications
    • Formal consultation if required. NOT HAPPENED/ING

    I know at least one Dean reads WonkHE, so perhaps she might feedback the truth to the other Senior Academics she’s in regular contact with, over to you Rachel.

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