This article is more than 3 years old

Students and Covid is a UK wide problem that needs a UK wide solution

Christmas and the new year are UK wide student migration events. Jim Dickinson asks if this means the exciting and dramatic return of UK wide higher education policy.
This article is more than 3 years old

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Higher education policy has been drifting off in different directions around the fours parts of the UK for a while now – but it looks like Covid-19 might be forcing some coordination.

We got a sniff of this over the A levels/Highers crisis, where a similar problem – and arguably more public and media attention than usual on other parts of the UK over pandemic handling – conspired to create plenty of “compare and contrast” moments of the sort that tend to demand policy responses.

Students’ “return home” for Christmas has emerged as a fascinating policy issue for all sorts of reasons, many of which we won’t go over again here – but an emerging one is this nations dimension.

As we’ve been saying for a few weeks now, even if you ignore the “attention on other nations’ handling” aspect of the pandemic, temporary migration and “visits” is potentially both about the rules in the nation where you study and those where you live.

Tiers within a country is one thing – but lots and lots of students study in another part of the UK – so the need for coordinated and consistent messaging about what is and is allowed becomes essential for adherence.

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Because we’re addicted to believing that all HE is “Harry Potter” boarding school style, we’ve so far chosen to ignore both commuters (more likely to be enrolled on courses with substantial face to face components) and hybrids who study in the same region but live elsewhere and travel back regularly. We’ve even stuck our fingers in our ears and shut our eyes about reading weeks – presumably because neither Oxford nor Cambridge have one.

Pack your bags

But handling Harry’s return for Xmas has now become a real headache. Downing Street started the term by stressing the need for universities to not “send students home” if they got an outbreak – an exhortation with multiple implications.

First of all you have to find a way to assure the parents they are returning to that students won’t kill granny by passing on Covid-19 around the Christmas turkey. Apparently our first stab at this was suggesting all students self-isolate for the same fortnight in December, but it was quickly concluded that that would be as impractical as it sounds.

The next big idea was a testing blitz on students. Every other day Boris Johnson or Matt Hancock pop up to promise that week’s version of that time that Amazon were going to be posting a test to everyone in Britain, but if that kind of capacity did emerge there’s no guarantee we’d be able to be seen to “waste” them on students.

That probably leaves the sort of the guidance that asks HE providers to consider the risks in their context and develop a plan to mitigate the risks. That’s attractive because it takes account of institutional diversity, and firmly places the responsibility for fixing the problem (and funding the fixes for the problem) onto universities.

Let it slip

But devolution makes that hard. On Thursday Welsh Education Minister Kirsty Williams was on press conference duty for the Welsh Government, and having been hit by a question on students and Christmas, let slip that the safe return home of students for Christmas will be coordinated at a UK level.

Talks on how to facilitate the process were held in a meeting with the UK and Scottish education secretaries, education officials from Northern Ireland, and Westminster universities minister Michelle Donelan – chaired by none other than Cabinet Office Minister and Chancellor for the Duchy of Lancaster Michael Gove.

A further meeting is to be held next week to consider how to facilitate what Williams described as the “mass migration” of students in December. She also revealed that asking students to self-isolate is under “active consideration”, although efforts are being made to limit the amount of time that students will self-isolate for. She added that solutions would be mindful of students’ health and “mindful of the health of their parents… who they’re going home to, and of course the wider community.”

That all came on the same day that Kirsty Williams had been proudly pouring £10m into universities and their SUs to help deal with pandemic impacts. Scale up for student numbers and that would be £150m if the Department for Education was doing the same – but all DfE has done so far is tout its £256m magic money twig (not real new money) and £3m for Student Space, which Wales helped chip in for anyway.

If you want students to comply, self-isolation costs money that it’s hard to imagine universities were supposed to predict when they all got their guidance – despite governments knowing that “return home” would be an issue back in May. If Kirsty Williams, John Swinney and Diane Dodds have any sense, they’ll have been pointing those costs out in the four nations round table, demanding any scheme is properly funded and waiting for the Barnet consequentials to kick in.

If not, they’ll be accusing the Westminster government of sending infected students home to their country – something Welsh FM Mark Drakeford has already all but accused Westminster of over his fire break.

Core blimey

Meanwhile on Friday Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced her “5 tier” approach, embedded in her hastily revised “Strategic Framework” for handling Covid. And the higher education aspects are very interesting, coming hot on the heels of a highly critical BBC1 Scotland documentary on the handling of Covid-19.

First of all, in a section on appropriate support for students self-isolating and in quarantine, it proudly proclaims that Universities Scotland has announced a Consistent Core of Care package which commits every institution to providing regular check-ins for self-isolating students, help with food and groceries, cleaning supplies, and internet access. But it’s surely only a matter of time until someone points out what we noticed when it was announced – it’s only “consistent” if you happen to live in university run halls.

The Tiers that were announced tantalisingly suggest (without any detail for now) that while blended learning will continue through the tiers, it will be “restricted” in Scottish Levels 3 and 4. This is important because as well as focussing on finances and accommodation, the Disclosure documentary had raised questions about last minute changes to the Scottish guidance that saw a stress on online provision deleted in favour of a bland passage on blended.

Accused of causing or at least allowing a crisis to happen, Scottish Education Secretary John Swinney pops up in the doc with words to the effect of “we’ll learn the lessons from what has happened in September”, and lo and beyond the framework says:

We will learn lessons from the start of the 2020/21 academic year looking at the formation of student households, how student accommodation is used, and student compliance as part of a safe experience while at, and returning to, campus.

It also refers specifically to the Christmas issue:

There are particular challenges around the winter break this year. Based on previous year’s data, up to 150,000 university students (60% of total enrolments) could be leaving their term-time addresses over the winter break, with risks … of students switching households for Christmas and in many cases returning to multi generation settings or vulnerable communities”

Happy new year

But this isn’t just a Christmas issue. Scotland also has a government that’s noticed that there will be another term in January, noting the risks of:

Students returning after Christmas, forming new households in student accommodation and socialising with different households and in different settings [and] students returning from potentially higher risk areas.

Wherever you are, January is potentially very tricky. Students’ return may be blamed for general January fatigue with restrictions. And whether they need to be back depends on assessment arrangements as well as student preference. If Harry has to go back to sit an exam or do a supervised practical assessment then this is a whole other problem.

Other students may not have Jan assessments for their course (eg things are essay based) so might not make it back till Feb – just in time for what many think will be the third wave.

No solutions are on offer in the Scotland plan yet – although a section on testing does say the Scottish government will keep under review:

…how testing could be used alongside other measures to reduce transmission in student populations, including encouraging and supporting the use of asymptomatic testing as part of the response to outbreaks in student halls of residence.”

Who knows if SAGE have been asked to model the to and fro of both Christmas and Easter, and whether any research is trying to understand what has happened on campus this term. What is clear is that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have tended so far to be more willing to invest in student support during the pandemic, and more politically willing to take measures on the “hawkish” side of restrictions than England.

Perhaps most importantly, if and when it happens again and goes wrong again in the new year, none of the education ministers on that Gove Zoom call will be able to shrug off the criticism by saying that the return to campus in a global pandemic is “unprecedented”. In fact by then it will be anything but.

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