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A month to go, and still lots of questions to answer

Whose job is it to worry about what students will do on Saturdays next term? Jim Dickinson looks for someone to take a lead.
This article is more than 3 years old

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

On LBC’s Shelagh Fogarty show, Tina has a daughter who is going into her third year of university and will be living with six other friends – and she’s worried that the virus will not only spread between them but to those that live in the city.

“There’s been so much talk in the media about the schools going back, teachers being concerned. What happens when all these students are forming brand new households in city centres? Why is nobody talking about this?” Tina asked.

Shelagh said that the experience of coronavirus is “never-ending” and each week there is a new element to unfold and examine. “This is a layer that now needs to be seriously looked at, whether a city is in semi-lockdown or not,” Shelagh said. But when will it get seriously looked at? And who by?

Slowly but surely, public concern is starting to grow. A fortnight or so ago the powerful HMO lobby – the national association of sixty local residents’ associations across forty towns throughout the UK – specifically asked the government to use its powers under the Coronavirus Act 2020 to prevent students from turning up. We’re also starting to see open letters to local councils asking for answers appearing in our media monitoring. Tina is not an isolated case.

Tick tock

Notwithstanding variation around the UK and between institutional type, we’re roughly a month to go now until the big “migration event” – involving over a million students criss-crossing the country to move into new towns and cities.

Big questions remain. What’s surreal about it all is that unless I’ve missed something, I’ve still not seen any modelling on universities, students and Covid-19 transmission in September. There was this, from a Swansea mathematician. And this from a wider group of mathematicians. But with the greatest of respect to mathematicians, we need to see something from epidemiologists, surely?

SAGE minutes from June and July told us that some kind of DfE/SAGE committee was being set up, but then the trail went dead. To be fair, DfE has been busy. But here’s a quick tip for Universities UK and the mission groups that are now on Michelle Donelan’s daily admissions taskforce. If in 6 months time the minutes come out and you’ve not been discussing models of virus transmission in the community as a result of student migration with DfE/DoH, how is that going to look? And if you have, but you’ve not been telling the public, students, or staff – how is that going to look?

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said a big increase in testing is the way to “unlock the puzzle” of the UK coronavirus outbreak. The problem is that Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that on April 2nd. Don’t bet on the puzzle being unlocked by Welcome Week either.

Lee Majors

There is a looming question in terms of the community and interaction between it, universities and students – what Shelagh Fogarty calls this “new layer”. Whose job is it to worry about all this – and then by implication take responsibility for it, and fund solutions? Chris Skidmore says that universities must ensure that they don’t “fall into a trap” of being blamed for local outbreaks. So who should be blamed?

The obvious first stop on your search would the Department for Education (DfE). I’ll not make comment about the efficacy of Gavin Williamson’s outfit here – save to say that SAGE noted here that higher education settings often generate internal (and international) migration to towns and cities, involve formation of new households (particularly at the start and end of terms) and noted that university student populations engage in a “broad range of activities”, which result in complex networks.

“These factors and others should be considered in guidance to these sectors ahead of autumn terms starting”, said its minutes. That was the best part of six weeks go, and we’ve not heard a peep from the department since. Either DfE has decided to ignore the SAGE recommendation and has resolved that no further guidance is required, or its coming – heart-racingly close to the start of term.

But should we pin this tail exclusively on the DfE donkey? Where you would want clear lines of responsibility, it’s hard to find anyone who thinks it’s their problem. It’s like the pass-the-policy-parcel we see over student housing – only this time, as well as the Department for Education (DfE) and the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government (MHCLG), the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) is in the mix – as well as Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) persuading international students to come, the Treasury refusing to fund the solutions, the Home Office being oddly helpful over immigration, No.10 keeping Gavin on a short leash and, of course, the devolved administrations.

It’s a recipe, basically, for avoiding responsibility. For example – find me a single national UK politician that has discussed the student migration event and the steps being taken (apart from Nicola Sturgeon saying briefly that she would address this, but hasn’t yet). Have any of them even noted the obvious potential risks and concerns, let alone revealed a strategy for addressing them? I can’t find one.

The leader of the council in Birmingham is terrified about house parties and role they are playing in a spike. Nicola Sturgeon is also worried about house parties. Aberdeen is in local lockdown, Birmingham is on its way, and in both cases the locals are getting restless. 25,000 students study at the University of Aberdeen and at RGU – and 80,000 students study across Birmgham’s HEIs. What’s the plan when they arrive? Who knows, other than these lovely people – with their enticing offer of “Giant Bouncy Castles 🏰”, “Massive Foam Cannons 💦”, “Bucking Rodeo Bulls 🐂” and “Adult-sized Ball Pits 🔴”.


Maybe the sector itself could show leadership on modelling Shelagh’s layer. We spent a lot of time in the early part of the pandemic trumpeting our role in science – but now on modelling the community transmission we might indirectly cause, we either haven’t done it or have thus far kept it a secret.

SAGE sub committee minutes suggest that at least two universities have carried out some modelling of student, staff and community transmission and network dynamics. It does raise the question – why hasn’t this been made public? Is the assumption that modelling like this is being fed into public health strategists and that we’ll know the implications… soon?

I raise all of this because half of my social timeline consists of tales of US university campus re-openings going wrong, and the other half is some UK universities worried that they are full and being urged to take more – most of whom will move to those already-full cities.

As campus after campus in the US moves to online only for this term, are we absolutely sure that the UK, the pandemic process here, the government’s handling of it, the risks on and off campus, the potential facilities and timetabling chaos and so on are sufficiently different for us that we should be bringing hundreds of thousands of students into university towns next month when the US is doing the opposite?

Are we confident students won’t not spread the virus? In the absence of mass testing, are we confident they’ll declare their symptoms? Do we know the plan if there’s an outbreak? Are we confident students will not be miserable if they’re locked down?

Surely the plan isn’t to get everyone to turn up, stick it out for a few weeks so that the fee liability kicks in, and then blame external factors when we have to shut campuses back down? Surely we’re not going to amble into a crisis and let people believe that this was the plan all along?

Freed from desire

One of the things I’ve been talking to elected student officers about a lot over the past few weeks is desire paths. Every Estates Director in the UK knows this problem – you have a lovely flower bed you’re trying to protect, but it’s right in the middle of a short cut from one building to another. You lay a lovely path round it. People trample over the flowers anyway.

It’s week 2 of term. You study a subject that doesn’t *require* face to face interaction. The scheduled class is at 6pm Friday. Half of the room is missing, for all sorts of reasons – buses, self isolation, CBA. There’s a (contract tracing) register to keep. No-one’s really sure about the GDPR implications.

At that point, surely you just all agree to forget it and do it on Zoom next week – at a much more sensible hour? In a lot of cases people will just ignore timetablers and become their own. Dreaded doodle polls will abound. What are universities going to do if students and the academic agrees – make them meet face to face? In a pandemic? Will the central university even know?

Will there be proof that this “permission” to fundamentally alter the nature of delivery was obtained from all students without collective duress? How will it look if two thirds of undergrads have basically gone “home” by December? And what about the longer term mental health implications if that happens, and the kick back on housing?

But the real reason I raise desire paths is that there are far more deadly implications to the realities of students thinking “forget it, I’ll just walk over the flower bed” in the context of Covid-19. I’m thinking adherence to social distancing, local lockdowns, and declaring symptoms. Yet to the extent to which I’m seeing anything, I’m seeing lovely paths (“please sign this voluntary community safety compact”) rather than raw realism (“I was lonely and there was only twelve of us and we hadn’t seen eachother since March and it was raining and…”)

This is where you’d want lots of honest student voice – if we dare let them in the room. What you don’t want is SU officers worried about upsetting the apple cart lest their block grant is cut.

It couldn’t happen here

To some extent, the US tales do have to be put into context. On the one hand, there is much more focus on the hermetically sealed “academic theme park” campus. Our Covid-secure campuses are mostly less like the landlocked cruise ships that many rightly warned about. Bluntly, we are better able to keep students off campus.

The obvious flipside though is that that means bringing over a million young people to cities in the UK who can’t spend time on campus, but are spending most of their time in the community – which must surely just amount to an exercise in moving the risk deckchair around the community Titanic.

From a civic and student-as-citizen perspective, it is pretty extraordinary that there’s basically barely a student or member of staff in the UK that understands the steps their local director of Public Health is taking re students, community transmission and next term – let alone the triggers and scenario plans for lockdowns/closures if there’s an outbreak. And if someone can explain to me how all of that works in London, there’s a Wonkhe mug on its way.

As well as concerns about arrival, there are ongoing worries. This slide deck of discussions from that mathematics modelling group I mentioned is interesting because of what it doesn’t pick up. The schema of contact networks doesn’t notice students in bars, students at dodgy unregulated Freshers’ events, students in poor quality low paid work, students hanging out at (or having parties at) each other’s houses, students on buses, or students going home at the weekends. It should, shouldn’t it?

Students may not be regarded as local citizens over the summer, and local authorities have form on “othering” students, but the idea that I can barely find an SU President who’s even met their local Director of Public Health is pretty wild. I’m the first to argue that universities should do various things. But students are local citizens too, and ought to be playing a key role in the co-production of the positive management of the pandemic in their locality.

If we assume students are like school children, we will fail. But even that would be better than assuming that the problem is someone else’s.

3 responses to “A month to go, and still lots of questions to answer

  1. Great article. Beyond the direct Covid-19 risks, it will remain essential for universities to provide the social, recreational, emotional and personal development opportunities that are a huge part of the value of attending university. Plans for this need to be every bit as coherent and comprehensive as the plans to deliver academic content (now largely on-line). The latter, which is readily operationalised in terms of module credits and hours, has been implemented with enormous effort and great speed, but the former, which remains largely unmeasured and unspecified, surely underpins much of students’ satisfaction, and deserves equal priority. We cannot risk turning universities into academic monasteries, particularly for new entrants, and yet there is no government steer or coherent pan-university framework that explains to students, parents or staff how this might be avoided.

  2. And so your answer is…..? Oh that’s right, we offer online for a year. Hundreds of thousands of students defer to 2021, which is rather unfair on students planning to enter then anyway. HEIs receive a fraction of tuition fee income and ancillary income, and hard-pressed local economies crash. There will be massive job cuts and end of many universities. But worth it because some academic staff are worried about a virus that presents a very low risk of significant harm, at a time when every other sector is working to live alongside Covid-19. A handful of largely wealthy US colleges have closed – hundreds of others haven’t.

  3. Blended and a staggered return will help. L6 are brought back first along with any direct entrants into the final year at the start of Oct. Then L5 and any direct entrants end of Oct/ start of Nov. L4 and PGTs start in January. All in the proposal submitted to the Education Committee in May 2020 along with a financial suggestion. Can be done but it needs sector collaboration and us to think differently. If we dont keep our campuses safe by slowly increasing numbers on campus and in the towns and cities in which they reside and managing social distancing well, spikes will happen which could lead to uni closures. We have a duty of care to all but especially our final year students to be able to complete their studies in a safe environment. They will have had half of their degree disrupted due to C19.

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