This has already been the toughest year in living memory for university students, staff and applicants. And it’s only September.
Universities are having to grapple with huge challenges in responding to the pandemic and preparing for the new academic session but in a context of significant uncertainty and turbulence around domestic and international student recruitment as well as major financial concerns.
There is, unsurprisingly, a great deal of anxiety, not just from university staff, about the start of the new academic year and what the arrival of large numbers of students will mean in terms of trying to minimise the spread of the virus.
The President of NUS, Larissa Kennedy, recently expressed her concerns in the Guardian:
“A real worry is that we cannot trust universities to put student and staff safety first, because they are too preoccupied with their position in the market,” says Kennedy, referring to a recent report by the Independent Sage committee, which recommended that universities should teach online as the default, to avoid spreading the virus.
From planning to delivery
Everyone is worried, rightly, about their safety and that of their friends and colleagues on campus. For all universities the over-riding concern – the single most important priority – remains the health and safety of students, staff, and visitors. All of the preparatory activities are focused on making campuses safe. Yes, following the A level fiasco and given the expected dearth of international students, universities are also seeking to recruit and to fill places but this, even though a vital activity, is secondary to campus safety. Market positioning is pretty far down the priority list.
Everything that universities are doing now, taking account of all of the guidance and direction from government and others, but going beyond all of these in many respects, is totally concerned with how best to ensure a start of session which is safe and secure for all. Whilst it is not that hard to pick holes in some parts of the guidance and say that it doesn’t go far enough and to anticipate the many challenges which will inevitably arise, universities have plans for dealing and responding to the issues which arise. But at some point planning has to turn into delivery.
Some have proposed that universities should not re-open but deliver almost all teaching online. This though ignores the fact that universities have not actually closed since lockdown. Many students who were unable to travel home for whatever reason or did not have anywhere else they were able to go remained in student halls on campus and some research, particularly into Covid-19 and potential vaccines, continued on campus – as did core estates functions, security, IT, animal welfare services etc. And, of course, many staff have continued to work and teach remotely.
Further re-opening then is what is actually being undertaken and, whilst there will inevitably be some who have to self-isolate for periods and there may have to be localised lockdowns, the suggestion that this just makes everything too difficult and that we should “save everyone the bother” and return to where we were in late March, is just wrong.
The emotional impacts of the last few months on staff, students and the local communities around universities should not be underestimated. Many staff are anxious about returning to campus and new first-year students have been through a terrible few months of uncertainty, compounded by A level chaos during August. We have to ensure students feel welcomed on campus, that they have a positive experience and that we are addressing both their wellbeing and the want of decent educational experiences that many have experienced during lockdown.
Local communities are understandably concerned about the return of so many students even though they recognise that the universities are drivers of the local economy at a time of recession. Universities are going to have to continue to work really hard to address these anxieties about student behaviour in the community to avoid this becoming a big issue at the start of session. And we also have to ensure that we support all our staff in overcoming their concerns about returning to campus (where they are actually able to).
There is rightly concern about the impact of the changes to be introduced on students and their experiences. Universities have to do the right things here – yes, it is absolutely safety first and it is also about seeking to provide the best possible experience within the constraints and ensuring that the steps taken do not militate against the broader mental and physical health and well-being of students.
Preparation, preparation, preparation
Universities have been planning and preparing for a safe and secure start of session for months and an enormous amount of work has been undertaken by academics – in revising curricula and re-planning delivery – and professional services staff in addressing facilities, services, campus experience and wider support activities. Institutions have also put various other arrangements in place including:
- Many buildings have been adjusted for social distancing arrangements
- Plans have been made for delivering larger classes online
- Changes to timetables to help with preventing crowded corridors, allowing for smaller class sizes and cleaning in between classes
- Face coverings mandated indoors in many places
- New Covid student codes of discipline and pledges
- New restrictions on numbers of people who can be present on campus or in particular buildings at any one time
- Physical changes to halls of residence
- Working closely with Local Resilience Forums including in relation to local outbreak control plans
- Planning how best to ensure an effective test and trace operation within a less than satisfactory national context.
All are keenly aware of the risks and are addressing them rigorously and thoroughly and universities are very far from ‘sleepwalking into disaster’ as some of the more extreme comments have put it recently. Some other apocalyptic suggestions, such as that universities are ‘care homes for the second wave’, are particularly unhelpful when we all need to have rational grown up conversations about risks and mitigations. And, whilst the latest BBC headline was equally pessimistic:
Coronavirus: University return ‘could spark Covid avalanche’
the article did include some sensible observations from Professor Jonathan Ball:
Professor Jonathan Ball, a virologist at the University of Nottingham, said universities were aware students returning to campus might be “a potential flair [sic] point for coronavirus infection” and were taking that risk “seriously”.
He said universities would have their own rules and guidance, with sanctions “for students who willingly, knowingly break the rules of engagement”.
But he cited veterinary students who had already returned to Nottingham, whom he praised for their “incredibly good” behaviour and attitude.
“We have to allow these students to get the education that they have worked hard for – and to enjoy university life as much as is possible at the moment,” he told BBC News.
Don’t go west
I would also suggest that looking to the position in the US and highlighting the problems that many universities have had there with their reopening plans is not instructive. Whatever one thinks of the way the governments in different parts of the UK have handled things and however many mistakes and missteps there have been (and there have been plenty), the approach here still looks relatively coherent and joined up compared with the position in the US. There has been little if any collaboration between institutions there and their earlier start of session, as well as what are often quite different residential, sport, financial, regulatory and social models mean that things are hard to compare with the UK in the context of the pandemic.
I have to say though that, whilst I welcome the transparency of reporting of incidents in US universities, I struggle to understand the motivation of those in this country enthusiastically sharing these reports through social media as if highlighting the number of coronavirus cases arising at a US university or a pool party taking place near the University of South Carolina in some way confirms that the start of session in the UK is being approached in the wrong way.
Universities are all trying to do the right things and to act in the best interests of students and staff as well as supporting local and national efforts in relation to the pandemic. The health and safety of each university’s community will continue to be the number one, overarching, unquestionable priority for all. Everyone is trying to do the right thing, aiming to be honest and open with our staff and our applicants and returning students. New students have had a heck of a time and been through an a-level rollercoaster since lockdown. We owe it to all students to provide them with best possible experience including some in person teaching, access to learning resources and a decent campus experience, albeit a rather different one from what they might have been expecting.
We have to begin the journey which will eventually get us back to something approaching normality.