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Safety first: universities doing the right thing for the start of session

For Paul Greatrix, we should feel a lot more confident that the decision to return to a Covid-proofed campus at the start of the new year is the right one.
This article is more than 3 years old

Paul Greatrix is Registrar at The University of Nottingham, author and creator of Registrarism and a Contributing Editor of Wonkhe.

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.

Legitimate concerns

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.

10 responses to “Safety first: universities doing the right thing for the start of session

  1. Universities is definitely a covid-19 playing field! Students are coming all over the world with all all sorts of infections we don’t know some could have that killer virus and definitely infect others! This year already is a mess and it’s almost going to an end why don’t the government let’s do remote learning online has planned until next year just to get things right…. starting lectures now I could see disaster ahead and I pray that no parents will lose a child over Christmas just because of recklessness! Pls close up the campus for now until next year just to get things right and sorted! Pls

    Am a prospective student and I want to live beyond 2020….. what’s the rush for….

  2. I am one of those sharing information about the start of term in the US and the concomitant spike in Covid. This has been in the spirit of concern to prevent a similar outbreak in the UK, and not done with any enthusiasm. SUNY Oneonta, the college I once taught at, has become a textbook case in how not to bring students back to campus. They also thought they had a Covid-safe campus – and that was the mistake – to focus on the campus. Students are part of the wider community; they work in the town/city, they volunteer, they rent housing, they go to pubs. And so a small upstate New York town now has over 500 cases of Covid, and counting. This has occurred in a state in which the positive test rate was at 1%. This was not Alabama or Iowa. The Oneonta dorms have become quarantine wards and all classes have been moved online for the rest of the semester. The campus was open for face to face classes for less than two weeks. And so how can we see this in the UK and expect a different result when students come back to campuses in late September ? Paul seems to think that there can be no comparison between the US and UK HE contexts – I am mystified as to how different the residential, sport, financial, regulatory and social models are. They are not significant enough that the spread of Covid in the UK cannot be predicted from the US experience. What students have in common is the desire for sociability and intimacy. He wonders at the motivation of those of us who have alerted UK colleagues to the developing US situation. It is precisely that, to alert UK universities to the inevitability of Covid spread in the absence of a competent and reliable government test-and-trace system. There is no malign or disruptive intent in not wishing to see students infect each other and the staff they encounter with a disease whose path is currently uknowable. I think it is time to re-assess the situation with a close eye on the reality that is now very apparent on many US campuses.

  3. Let us hope they do not. As returning final year students we have already had a nightmare of a closing second year. Let’s just hope freshers take this seriously and dont take unnecessary risks (although I am sure some will)
    If you’re too worried about it then take a year out as the many universities have already recommended. I would appreciate the opportunity to complete my undergrad.

  4. If students have “the desire for sociability and intimacy” then they have a desire to kill each other and anyone they come into contact with. Universities are putting place measures that will work, but only if students act responsibly. To my mind there is too much willingness to assume that universities are responsible for their students social lives. We are not.

  5. I still don’t understand why it’s apparently so important to get everyone back on campuses. What’s actually driving that “need”? I mean, universities will still rake in tuition fees even if the students are learning online, so what’s the big deal?

  6. I appreciate your comments here. There is a need for proper debate, indeed it is rather late in the day to be having it.

    I think most academic staff appreciate the efforts employers have made to prepare for the start of term ‘safely’, particularly in the face of shifting guidance and emerging new concerns (‘aerosolisation’, for example). It’s like trying to throw a lasso around a Chelsea tractor driven by a tousle haired Bullingdon boy fuelled by cocaine, bravado and self-entitlement. I think we realise that recruitment has also been a driving factor in how campuses and teaching are sold to prospective and existing students. The business model of HE means they have no choice.

    From what I can see many universities are doing what you do above – emphasise the on-site risk management measures in place and provision of symptomatic testing – mostly through extant PH systems – and downplay the responsibilities to the wider community.

    So what is absent in most of these is an attempt to consider in real terms the potential community effects – we all know students don’t live in a bubble. University risk management emphasises on-site controls (e.g. in halls of residence) not work with private landlords, public transport bodies and returning students themselves, where they have less control. There also, in my institution anyway, is a lack of clarity on the carrot and stick approach – ‘compacts’, ‘sanctions’, ‘staff empowerment’, ‘provision of alternative student experiences’. Work with local resilience forums and local public health bodies is described by many unis as happening, perhaps with a subtext of ‘ultimately they’ll be responsible’, but not communicated more widely leaving a lot of us second guessing what the plans actually are. Clear identification of measures that will be taken in different places, and at what sort of threshold (i.e. will campus X move to online only if there are 15 cases? 50 cases? 500?) different responses will be triggered, is notable by its absence (i.e. beyond aspirations and assurances is there a clear identification of ACTUAL existing capacity to test large numbers of people quickly at each site or evidence of plans to guarantee such capacity when needed? etc.).

    I agree the US examples should not be used as a read across, the context is completely different, including the significance of existing relatively high community transmission levels triggering rapid rises in cases in first few weeks. But it provides an illustration that IS relevant – namely the potential significance of HE as a site of PH risk, not least because it concentrates people more likely to exhibit risky behaviour and less likely to comply with rules or be identified as infectious through symptoms testing alone. How far universities are responsible for managing that mix is the big and open question – not least one that sits within wider ideological differences between regulatory regimes when it comes to intervening in freedoms and behaviours.

    Clearly the above sorts of issues are problematic not just from an epidemiological perspective but because of the fear it might engender and the local context – so modelling HE effects, devising and applying a PH response template for a city like Nottingham is very different in the context of smaller or more isolated ‘university towns’ with proportionately much larger student populations and/or vulnerable host communities.

    And it is clear from your blog above you are neither unaware nor unconcerned about all these sorts of issues – the ‘goodies’/’baddies’ narrative we can easily fall into is not going to serve us well in the time we have left to prepare for reopening.

    So overall what might be useful is a Q&A or ‘dialogues’ type of blog between you and Jim Dickinson or someone from the SAGE groups. That would be a good way of quickly getting to the meat of this debate, identifying areas of commonality (most things I suspect) and difference, and airing the different perspectives upon them.

  7. This seems a very superficial response which just regurgitates UUK’s line. What’s also striking is that there’s no discussion in there of the risk of transmission in the community and through transporting large numbers of students across the country and international borders.
    There is no mention of any consultation that has taken place with SAGE (as noted above) but more important with staff, students and local communities (including some form of representation of private landlords) in designing solutions for each campus/university. Very much a top down approach.

  8. Quite simply, safety is evidently not the priority here. The priority of most universities is presently to manage the perception of the press and their place in the HE “market”, and to do so by putting staff and students at levels of what they deem acceptable risk.

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