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The only certainty about September is uncertainty for students

As Cambridge and Bolton announce their plans for September, Jim Dickinson ponders the sorts of certainty being offered to students.
This article is more than 2 years old

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

On the face of it, two “certainty” announcements from universities about their approach in relation to September look like diametric opposites.

First up is the University of Cambridge, whose education committee has agreed that there will be no face-to-face lectures next year “since it is highly likely that rigid social distancing will be required”. Lectures will be live-streamed, as well as being recorded and made available on Moodle – and plans are currently underway to ensure that “the delivery of lectures online will be of the best possible quality” – which presumably means things like buying up some of those fancy camera lights from Amazon as soon as they’re back in stock so that lectures don’t look a bad episode of Ghostwatch.

And then there’s Bolton, whose vice chancellor George Holmes has announced on Facebook that his campus will be “Covid-19 secure” by September. In an “ambitious and innovative” plan to re-open the campus for all students in September, students will be able to “study and engage in person” regularly with other students and staff – made possible via socially distanced face-to-face tutorials, laboratory experience, and access to arts studios and specialist facilities. There will be a campus scheduling system, airport-style walk through temperature scanners, bicycles for loan by students (so students can avoid buses), compulsory face masks, plastic dividing screens and self-service food and drink stations. There’s even a whizzy video to explain it all.

I’ve seen lots of commentary comparing the announcements that’s a bit sniffy about Bolton, with the implication that its approach is somehow ignoring the safety issues. I’m not so sure. Cambridge is still expecting students to move and live there, it’s only lectures that’ll be online and 9 in 10 of its full time students live in university or private-run halls (which look a lot like care homes, cruise ships and hotels from a social distancing perspective). Meanwhile Bolton’s model has much less of a focus on lectures anyway, half of its students are commuters and it has multiple social distancing measures worked out already. Tell me again which one is safer?

Student (second) life

The drive to “announce” is being driven by two big push factors. The first is the looming consumer law issue, signalled by OfS CEO Nicola Dandridge at the Education Select Committee – we do need to tell students what it is that we are offering them before we sell it to them and make them pay for it (either directly or through an income contingent loan). There’s also competition. We won’t want other universities or other countries’ markets stealing our students by announcing before us. We need to offer some reassurance and… certainty.

But what can we be certain about? What’s remarkably similar about the Cambridge, Bolton and even Manchester announcements so far is the extent to which they focus on what these higher education “providers” “deliver” in terms of teaching. That matters – but as every university marketing department will tell you, students also want to know what life will be like at a given university. “What will be missing” is a much harder question to answer.

Imagine all the people

Let’s imagine, for example, that halls of residence and HMOs are legally OK to open – but by September the government (perhaps in the grip of a second peak) is maintaining that hotels and holiday parks either have to be shut or operate at 30% occupancy. A mass population shift in September into these buildings might not look like such a great idea. And while Bolton’s bikes will work for an area like Greater Manchester (which sounds like fun in the winter), commuter students might well struggle to get in for their dregs of face to face teaching elsewhere in the country.

That “please do still move here” thing is also dependent – specifically and heavily dependent, even according to Phillip Augar – on students having part time work to help pay the rent. Are all those jobs in hospitality hurtling back by September? Really?

We could think about the social events, the clubs and societies, the workshops, the room bookings, the club nights, the volunteering, the campaigning, the citizenship building stuff. What will be allowed? What will be possible? What will be available? We don’t know, which means all we can guarantee right now is deep isolation and loneliness – which we know is a major problem.

There’s the wider facilities that students use. Are PC labs (with their specialist software and space to work in peace) going to be open? Are libraries going to be operational? What about group work spaces, fitness facilities, common rooms and sports pitches? Any ideas?

The tightness of budgets means that in some cases there will need to be radical changes to the design (and module breadth) of courses. And even without all that, we don’t know where the immigration regime will be, or what we’ll be able to deliver for Disabled students, or which of the wider “non teaching” services will meaningfully make it to online by the Autumn.

How is careers operating come September? What are counselling offering? Will there be a chaplaincy? Finance advice? Study skills? Language support?

Even academically there’s deep uncertainty. Do we know what we’re doing with years abroad yet? How we’re supporting PGRs? How we’re adapting courses with lab components? Have all the PSRBs signed everything off yet? Has anyone seen any signs of what we used to call Quality Assurance recently?

Right now we don’t even know which courses and students didn’t “make it” online for the fag end of an academic year. Yet we somehow know which courses, and which students, and which facilities, can transition online or to ”social distance” with certainty for September for a whole academic year. Really?

And all of that is before we’ve stress tested plans for the equality impacts. Some of those duties are “anticipatory” for a reason, but there doesn’t look like there’s much anticipation going on right now. Show me a proper Equality Impact Assessment for any of your plans right now, and I’ll send you a Wonkhe mug.

July 1st is coming

We should have a proper think about the delicate student housing market. July 1st is the start date for a hell of a lot of student accommodation contracts. Should students and their parents sign, or at least pay that first instalment?

What’s the Government’s advice on moving in if I’ve signed from July 1st? Are any universities offering anyone (broadband style) “no strings” 1 month commitment approaches? What if a group of six students loses one of their friends from a “joint and several” HMO contract in the next few weeks? What if some of the PBSA providers collapse without international students propping up their already unrealistic occupancy targets? What did we learn from the first lockdown for how any second lockdown might be handled?

Material information

The reason that all of that matters is that both in moral terms and consumer law terms, it’s all material. It’s material to your choice to enrol in higher education at all, to your decision to enrol at a particular provider, and material to your choices within that provider. And if we’re being honest, not nearly enough of it is certain enough right now for anyone to be reasonably suggesting that students should be making a decision.

Maybe the risk and uncertainty would be tolerable if there were protections on offer – but as we know, what’s there either isn’t being enforced, or is desperately weak. Early on in the pandemic for example, OfS said that to comply with consumer law, communications on changes to courses this term should set out the options available to students in order for them to avoid the changes without being adversely affected. It may well have expected providers to “make reasonable alternatives available to students”, but I’ve struggled to find anyone complying. Because universities can’t really do this on their own.

In the absence of certainty, the competition and the autonomy baked into the system starts to look like the real problem. On one level it encourages enrollment and commitment without safety. And on another level, in our “demand led” fee cheque autonomous provider system (particularly in England), students are repeatedly somehow “othered” – removed from wider protections enjoyed by others in society. Student maintenance loans not quite big enough? Top them up via your APP plans. Access to sanitary products? Oh you should buy them. NHS mental health services not up to scratch? UNIVERSITIES MUST ACT.

That was all bad enough – but it’s ten times worse in a pandemic. Students who’ve lost jobs being hounded for rent? You deal with it. Students need a laptop? You buy one. Students need income over the summer? No, we’re not letting them claim universal credit. You deal with it, with your never-ending, magic money tree hardship funds.

Something has to give. Universities and their staff simply cannot deliver socially distant, safe, online equivalents of everything that they were back in February – as well as enhanced help and protection for students – when their budgets (both financial and emotional) are under huge strain. We need a national plan for reopening universities. And anything less than “absolute clarity” to students about what has to “give” in this situation will represent a deep, unforgivable, moral failure.

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