Students are taking Covid-19 vaccination seriously

Ian Wiggins reports on encouraging news about student vaccination from the University of York

Ian Wiggins is Director of Operations at the University of York

It’s Freshers’ Week season and between the usual media hysteria about raucous parties and DfE’s worries about student vaccination rates, you’d be forgiven for thinking students were modern day Typhoid Mary. Our data – and our students – tells a very different story.

Over the past six weeks we have been asking our students during enrolment a voluntary question about their vaccine status. As the results have come in they have painted a picture of a body of students who – as we have seen time and again during the pandemic – have taken their responsibilities seriously to their community and to their own safety.

Nine in ten

To date, we have had 18,699 responses (about 86 per cent of our total cohort). Of these, a fantastic 90 per cent of students have told us they are already either partially or fully vaccinated. That’s a rate that is above national statistics for all age groups (and our cohort, like most of the sector, is much younger than the general population, although there are also wider demographic effects here too – our cohort is whiter than the general UK population for example).

Diving into the data a little more and we find home students (by fee status, not quite the same as domicile but a decent enough proxy) are showing a 93 per cent overall fully or partially vaccinated rate. Just 4 per cent of home students have told us they’re not yet vaccinated (with 3 per cent opting out of the questionnaire).

For international students (again, by fee status) our data shows around 14 per cent of that group to be arriving unvaccinated (not surprising as many will be coming from countries where vaccines are comparatively less available). But also fully 72 per cent of our arriving international students have said they are already fully vaccinated (again, perhaps reflecting the speed that other countries have rolled out vaccines to lower age groups).

What makes it work

This high uptake links to a number of supporting factors. The first is vaccine availability. As soon as the vaccine eligibility dropped to younger age groups we hosted pop up clinics on campus working with brilliant local NHS partners. We also identified early that a lack of an English NHS number was a barrier to accessing a vaccine for international students (and for students from the other home nations too) so we offered both a targeted booking route for these students and a walk-in service. By the time term ended we’d already vaccinated well over a thousand students at these clinics.

We also hammered home the importance of vaccinations in our communications with students. Over the summer every student received at least ten different messages either specifically on vaccinations or that mentioned vaccines. Each one had a simple message and a clear call to action – strongly recommending vaccination and signposting to resources so students could book an appointment wherever they were currently living. Peer to peer messaging, including from our students’ unions also underscored this.

Students doing the right thing

But it always helps when you’re pushing against an open door. Underneath all of this has been a community of students who have been eager to get vaccinated as soon as possible – every pop up clinic we ran last term had a queue well before we opened the doors; all our pre-booked appointments sold out.

Our approach hasn’t required coercion or blocking access to services without a vaccine passport – instead we’ve had a cohort of students eager to do the right thing, understandably keen to do whatever they can to get back to a hopefully more normal University experience, and wanting to support a wider civic recovery. Students were among the first to offer to volunteer, to fundraise, to buddy up with local school children and to build peer support networks. They weren’t just helping themselves or their campus, they were helping each other and the wider community.

We’ve also had a deeply supportive local environment. City of York Council, and their public health team, have always been clear that students in our city are residents as much as anyone else that lives here, askewing the kind of “othering” narrative we’ve sometimes seen elsewhere. And the pandemic has also brought the city HE and FE community together in a really meaningful way – so pop up clinics on our campus have been open to all, as have sites at York St John University up the road from us.

We’re not resting on our laurels of course. We want to turn that 90 per cent fully and partially vaccinated stat into a 90 per cent and higher fully vaccinated rate as soon as possible. We’ve got four pop up clinics running next week and we’re capturing first dose dates from students so we can invite them to clinics for their second doses as soon as they’re eligible. And of course all of this builds into wider messaging about responsible Covid behaviours, all part of a city wide campaign: Protect, Respect, Be Kind.

There’s a wider point in all this too. So often during the pandemic we’ve seen students, and young people generally, as last in the line for support and first in line for blame.

Much of the policy response to Covid would be much better if policymakers did more to frame students as part of the solution, rather than part of the problem. Rather than seeing vaccination rates in terms of ‘worrying’ uptake amongst the young, and leaving a damoclean sword of possible consequences hanging over the sector, let’s instead focus on barriers to access, on availability, and on positive encouragement. York’s experience shows that a community focused and engaged approach can pay dividends.

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