(Some) students on practical courses in England can return to campus in early March

The Westminster government's Covid reopening roadmap is out. Jim Dickinson gets across the implications for higher education providers and students.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

The Westminster government has published its roadmap for England that will, in the words of PM Boris Johnson, guide us “cautiously but irreversibly towards reclaiming our freedoms”.

His statement to the commons confirmed what had been swirling around on social media all day for higher education – students on courses requiring practical teaching, specialist facilities or onsite assessments will “return” on March 8th.

All others will need to continue learning online – the government will review the options for when they can return by the end of the Easter holidays.

Detail devils

The roadmap itself expands on the headline in the statement, first with the practical exemption:

Students on practical Higher Education courses at English universities who would be unable to complete their courses if they did not return to take part in practical teaching, access specialist facilities, or complete assessments will also return from 8 March. Research labs and libraries can be kept open if needed.

That qualification around students “who would be unable to complete their courses” is problem number one. Courses or years? Basically, the road map reads like this is an exemption only for single and final year students. But neither the PM’s commons statement, nor the press conference, nor the DfE guidance details that particular bit of prioritisation.

One of the questions that many asked on hearing the PM was how universities are to make decisions about which students and courses can recommence with onsite, “in-person” attendance. Generally, this looks like it’s being left up to providers to determine – the guidance just says that providers should not ask students to return if their course can “reasonably be continued” online.

The lack of clarity may be an issue. Given time and access to facilities is tight, one provider with lots of students on practical courses may be keen to ration their facilities to final and single year students. Another may be keen to get everyone back for “something” face to face.

But the trouble is that expectations have now been set and students across the country will compare. DfE is going to need to clarify whether the permission is for all courses with practical components, or just for students nearing completion.

There’s also a longer paragraph in the roadmap on everyone else:

For those higher education students that do not need to take part in practical teaching, and do not require access to specialist facilities or equipment as part of their studies, the government will review, by the end of the Easter holidays, the options for timing of the return of these students. This will take account of the latest data and will then be a key part of the wider roadmap steps. Students and institutions will be given a week’s notice ahead of any reopening.

If students and their families have been feeling a bit forgotten, the good news is that a subsequent paragraph says the government recognises the difficulties and disruption that this all of this may cause – but says is necessary to limit the number of students who return to university at this stage to minimise travel and manage the risk of transmission.

And we’re naturally reminded that the government has made available an additional £70 million of hardship funding this financial year.  It’s something that also pops up in Michelle Donelan’s letter to students, although saying that the funding is “available to all students” is niot quite how we’d have framed it.

A DfE press release reiterates all of that, with universities minister Michelle Donelan taking the opportunity to remind the sector that for those studying online, “the quality and quantity of tuition for students should not drop”.

Notes in the release remind us that universities should maintain the quality and quantity of tuition, and ensure it is accessible to all students, regardless of their background, and “the Office for Students is monitoring online teaching to ensure this is the case”, although as we’ve pointed out repeatedly – “monitor” really is quite a stretch here.

Elsewhere in the roadmap, it looks like the 1m+ social distancing standard for indoors remains for now, although the guidance on face coverings in higher education is that they should be used in all indoor environments – including classrooms – unless 2m social distancing can be maintained.

And those hoping for an early halls kickabout won’t be happy – higher education students are excluded from an easing of rules on sport in education, as only:

Under-18 sport can take place at school as part of educational provision, or as part of wraparound care, but should not otherwise take place at this time.”

I love you you pay my rent

The DfE press release welcomes that many universities and private accommodation providers have already offered rent rebates, and again urges others to review their accommodation policies to ensure they are fair, transparent and have the best interests of students at heart.

It also helpfully reminds us that accommodation providers are autonomous and responsible for setting their own fees / offering freezes:

Whether or not an individual student is entitled to a refund will depend on the specific contractual arrangements between them and their provider.

The press release even has a go at palming off the question of rent rebates to the OIA, which is a whole new level of brass neck cheek insofar as it implies to students and parents that an official in Reading might eventually give students some rent back:

If students have concerns about their accommodation fees, they should first raise their concerns with their accommodation provider. If their concerns remain unresolved, and their university is involved in the provision of the accommodation, students at providers in England or Wales can ask the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) for Higher Education to consider their complaint.”

Morally and politically, an exacerbation of the overall rent problem now emerges. For those students who study away from home and aren’t going to be “called back” until after Easter, their teaching will be over or all but over and most assessment is already planned to be online.

The guidance still says that wherever possible, students should “remain where they are” and where they have one, should not travel to their term-time address or to access their university facilities until the resumption of in-person teaching and learning.

That means the calls for rent rebates from those students following the guidance will grow – and by the time we get to after Easter, unless there’s a substantial education offer to come back for, they’ll be asking why they are being asked to pay rent for April, May and June too.

This also all but confirms for hundreds of thousands of students that they never needed student accommodation at all this year, as many will complete the year having experienced a tiny number of, or no, on site teaching hours.

Elsewhere in the document there’s plenty on lost learning, the impact that disruption this year has had on students, and both the content and quantity of teaching in the coming months. But none of it is about universities – it’s all about schools, which feels like a huge but inevitable oversight and something of an own-goal for a sector that’s been keen to assert that learning objectives have still been met to bat off fee refunds.

Which courses and students?

As well as the parliamentary statement, press release and the main roadmap, DfE has also updated its higher education guidance on all of this.

First we learn that evidence collated by SAGE shows that limited, anecdotal evidence from 10 universities suggests that minimal cases of transmission were attributed to face-to-face learning environments, and asserts that instances where transmission did occur were associated with guidance not being followed. It was students’ fault, see.

SAGE has published some papers which it is assumed back this up, and we’ve had a read elsewhere on the site.

It also asserts that based on recent ONS data, the risks to higher education staff are similar to those for most other occupations, a statement which is unlikely to satisfy UCU.

On travel, the guidance says that providers should organise the return of students in a way that minimises the need for large numbers of students to travel between households at the same time, encourages providers to work with other local providers to manage the return of students in a way that minimises transport pressures, and says that providers with lots of students who are coming back on March 8th should consider staggering their return to minimise the numbers of students travelling at the same time.

Students are also encouraged to test before they travel back to university, where community testing facilities are available to them.

I know what you’re thinking. Where’s all the discourse about getting students home for Easter? Once students have returned to their term-time accommodation the guidance says that they must remain living there unless an exemption to the national restrictions on leaving home and gatherings applies, and they must only travel home where they have a legally permitted reason to do so. That will need fixing sharpish.

Testing times

One of the issues that took off in the commons when the PM was taking questions on the roadmap was testing. Apart from some minor arrangements that allow students to get a test at school if they can’t do it at home, the vast majority of education settings’ reopening plans set out in the roadmap rest on regular home lateral flow testing.

If you get a lateral flow test that comes up positive, you then have to get a confirmatory PCR test. But there’s one exception – higher education students.

They (can be) tested twice a week on site. And for this type of test, at the moment there’s no PCR confirmation – you just start self-isolating immediately. So given the risks of locking people down unnecessarily, we’d want proof that the rate of false negatives is low, right? The trouble is that the only data we have – from the pre-Xmas lateral flow exercise in Scotland – shows that almost 30% of the positives turned out negative when PCR confirmed.

We looked at the issue on Wonk Corner back in January here.

Labour universities shadow Emma Hardy raised this with the PM:

So can you explain why our only real world published figures from the student asymptomatic testing program in Scotland before Christmas showed almost 30% of positive tests turned out to be false when subject to a confirmatory PCR? Considering the financial, educational and mental health impact of self-isolation, does the Prime Minister share my concerns that a lot of students are going to be told to self-isolate for no reason?

Boris, evidently, wasn’t across the figures from Scotland:

I don’t recognise that figure Madame Deputy Speaker and lateral flow tests are extremely valuable in isolating asymptomatic positive tests and in helping schools to restart, that’s why we’re pursuing them.”

You’re left with the overall impression that DfE thinks that it wouldn’t be too much hassle for students if they had to self-isolate unnecessarily. This “no confirmatory PCR” policy for lateral flow testing done in testing centres (as opposed to at home) affects all LF testing in England and is supposed to be about relieving pressure on PCR testing capacity – but there’s an unfortunate side effect of robbing us of what little data there is on their accuracy.

Oh – and there’s a remarkable bit in the section on testing that suggests that officials may not have a full understanding of the realities of the student experience, or indeed car parking, inside many providers.

Students who are “back” (who are supposed to be getting a test twice a week but might not actually be on site twice a week) should “walk, cycle or drive” on the days they’re being tested – and if in a vehicle should try to be the only person in the vehicle, open the windows, wear a face covering and sit far away from others. Above all, they should “not use public transport, or a taxi, or a private hire vehicle” to return home. As if!

More questions than answers

Aside from the issues over rent, a bunch of other interesting questions emerge from the news. There’s an open question as to whether there’s enough time for students on final or single year taught courses have enough time to complete the year – and if not, universities will need to “cost up” the financial implications of the now resolved practical/vocational component return date in terms of any need to facilitate academic year extension, student support etc.

As noted above, for most students on taught programmes teaching will be all but over by the time they’re “allowed” back after Easter. Unless someone is offering something meaningful and substantial, it’s hard to see how students can or should be compelled “back” onto campus at that point. There’s no need, and it will look like rent-seeking and reckless.

For universities that have already agreed to the “rent rebates for all the time you’re not invited back” principle, the size of the financial headache just grew. Surely the government needs to underwrite both those and rebates for students in the private sector? Ministers should be asked “do you want students ‘at home’ or filling their uni HMOs and halls”. If it’s the former, surely they need to pay for it?

There’s substantial numbers of students on or near campus now who are away from home. Someone needs to remember to recreate the legal exemption that “allows” them “home”. And the current maintenance loan entitlement needs to be guaranteed into next term – for students in England there surely can’t be any more “you’re not away from home any more so here’s the lower rate” shenanigans.

Finally, there remain major problems for international students. At various points in the guidance DfE says that higher education will be given “at least a week’s notice” of being “allowed” to return, as if that can be announced, contextualised within an HEI, announced out to international students, flights booked and quarantine completed within a week.

It can’t – for some international students there’s a £1,700 quarantine hotel stay to complete, and generally there’s not enough time. And as it stands, international students are largely still being told to stay away, but those on a final or single year that are not in the country by April won’t be entitled to be on the graduate route. They and the sector are going to need clarity on that from the Home Office pretty fast.

During the debate on the roadmap, Lancaster MP Cat Smith asked about student financial support – and the PM’s answer was interesting:

I sympathise deeply with students who have had a time at university that no other generation has put up with. I sympathise deeply with their sense of unfairness, with the experiences they have had. They have been heroic, by the way, in the in which they have been able to bring the disease down in some university towns by obeying the guidance. We will do whatever we can to support them, working with the university sector, to make up for the experiences they have been through and to make sure, insofar as we can, that we help them to get compensation.”

“Make up for experiences they have been through” and “help them to get compensation” are interesting phrases that will both deserve some follow up.

2 responses to “(Some) students on practical courses in England can return to campus in early March

  1. “That qualification around students “who would be unable to complete their courses” is problem number one. Courses or years? Basically, the road map reads like this is an exemption only for single and final year students. But neither the PM’s commons statement, nor the press conference, nor the DfE guidance details that particular bit of prioritisation.”

    And we have already heard that some Universities intend to push the envelope, one I know only too well was planning, well the Vice Pres of Ed was, on bringing back students from the 1st of March, even the Chief Operations Officer has left that door open a little in a statement today: “The Government guidance states that, from 8 March, universities can resume in-person teaching and learning for students who are studying practical or practice-based subjects (including creative arts) and require specialist equipment and facilities.” note the lack of “who would be unable to complete their courses if they did not return to take part in practical teaching, access specialist facilities, or complete assessments”.

    One can only hope they listen to their paid “competent persons” professional advice (See Reg 7 of the ‘Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations (MHSWR) 1999), rather than blundering on without a thought about the Health of staff or students…

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