In lots of parts of the economy and society it makes perfect sense for the government to review its position on lockdown restrictions on a three-week rolling basis. But the university sector is not one of those parts.
Since the start of the pandemic universities have been obliged to turn on a dime numerous times. They pivoted to online last spring, they honoured Highers and A level grades when these were hastily revised upwards, they retooled courses for blended delivery in the autumn, and they mobilised to get students home for Christmas. While the hard work of university staff to make things happen has been admirable, every single one of these pivots came with consequences to student wellbeing, and engagement with their learning.
Throughout, there’s been a lamentable lack of national coordination from government, grounded in what can only be described as magical thinking in which if you say enough times that the quality must be there and students must be informed of or consent to any changes, and all students must graduate as planned, it actually makes it possible.
There was an opportunity to support students to study closer to home and avoid the mass transit events of September and October – missed.
There was an opportunity to recalibrate learning so that students could use their precious face to face time when Covid cases were relatively low and the sun was shining to make friends and guard against loneliness when the nights drew in and cases rose in the autumn – missed.
There was an opportunity to use the Christmas break to reset expectations for January in anticipation of the wholly predictable third wave – missed.
Now, some students are living on or close to campus, but without any scheduled face to face teaching time or other activity to fill their days. Others are at their family home, without access to student term time accommodation, while continuing to pay rent. Though they will continue to make the best of the situation they find themselves in, many are anxious, lonely, and bored.
Most – notwithstanding digital poverty barriers – will continue to engage with online course materials and scheduled contact time. For some this may even be sufficient to allow them to progress in their course as planned. But all will have missed out on the sort of contact with academics, personal tutors, and their own course mates that builds academic efficacy and confidence. And a great many will have missed out on vital practical experience in the workplace, studio, or lab that they need to achieve their learning outcomes.
The buck stops
It’s not universities’ fault that students can’t have the experience they hoped for. But universities have essentially been told that it’s their responsibility to pick up the pieces – through, in the words of last week’s letter from the Office for Students to accountable officers in institutions – considering rent rebates, and fee refunds and “engaging with private accommodation providers” (as if landlords of HMOs are going to start meekly handing rent cheques back to students once they’ve had a stern chat with the head of student services).
The letter was backed up by communication from universities minister Michelle Donelan to OfS chair Michael Barber rehearsing the government’s line that universities should not be charging full fees if the quality is not there, supported by a bizarre Twitter thread from the minister at the back end of the week.
Universities who absorbed the spirit of the guidance from government and OfS, and who had access to a magic money tree, would immediately issue a good-faith payment to students in acknowledgement of the additional costs they had incurred, and the general loss of student experience caused by attending university during a global pandemic.
Actually, as Jim argued, the assumption baked into government and OfS guidance that payments would be issued only in cases where students have actively sought redress for a specific failure of delivery virtually guarantees that the cost to universities will be manageable in most cases. The rank unfairness of those universities who can afford to do the right thing issuing rent rebates or additional student support while others who cannot, do not, is painful to behold. Elsewhere on the site DK has had a go at setting out how best a compensation plan for students might be put in place.
But the issue is much bigger than money. The students who are campaigning for “no detriment” in assessments, or fee and rent rebates, or crafting complaints to their institution, would much rather this wasn’t happening. They’d much prefer to be living in the accommodation they are paying for, engaging in the learning environment and being assessed in the usual way. Students want to learn what they came to university to learn.
And if they are not able to learn and progress and graduate, and find graduate level employment, a cheque will not make up for that. Nor, actually, would being soft on assessment – which isn’t really what “no detriment” is, but might end up being, given universities have now been in online or blended mode for nearly a year and there’s no robust data on how students might have performed had that not been the case.
Meanwhile, the 2021 cohort entering university is facing a rough ride of its own. Level three exams have been reorganised, they will have had more than a year of disruptions to their learning, and the university experience on offer in September remains uncertain. They’ll need additional support to transition – at exactly the same time that universities are trying to backfill lost learning for the current cohort of students.
Seize the day
There’s another opportunity now, while national lockdown coincides with the start of term, to begin to put things right.
There may come a time in the weeks ahead when it becomes possible to relax lockdown restrictions in some parts of the country. But what is probably not helpful is hustling students who are currently in their family homes “back” to halls of residence and HMOs as soon as possible, when we’re now in a national race against time to vaccinate quickly enough and stay socially distanced enough to stop new, more transmissible mutations of the virus rendering the efforts futile.
The lateral flow tests that the Christmas mass migration relied on has been shown to be ineffective – almost certainly contributing to our current predicament by giving false reassurance. Of the students who did go home at Christmas, some may want to return, but others will feel safer where they are – and feeling safe is a baseline condition for learning.
Even if ministers are not prepared to own their mistakes, government owes it to the sector and to students to say what the plan is now – and create the space for universities to do the kind of planning that actually leads to high quality learning. Rather than expecting universities to chop and change, and students to bounce around the country like ping pong balls, the government should decree that all but essential learning should remain online at least until Easter.
But that’s not all. It’s time to loosen the Treasury purse strings – not because the sector is more deserving than any other part of the economy, but because the patchy and uncoordinated response based on the will and resources of individual universities will ultimately increase inequality for this generation of students.
Issue Covid grant payment to all home students at every level, of £500. It won’t be enough to actually offset lost rent or mitigate the impact of the pandemic, but at least it’ll be fair. It would be expensive, but if you multiplied the £256m the government says it has made available to support less advantaged students by the number of times Michelle Donelan has mentioned it you’d probably come in well above the total.
Suspend the NHS surcharge for international students, especially as you really want them to get tested if they do have symptoms of Covid.
At the same time, announce a digital divide loan fund to help universities offer support to students whose circumstances make it difficult for them to study remotely and who are otherwise at risk of falling behind, and a PGR support loan fund to enable universities to extend PGR registration and support those who need additional funding to complete their projects for up to an agreed number of months.
Quality and learning outcomes
Move on from the mantra about the quality being there, which is just an excuse not to have to look at the fee level and make any reduction in the academic offer the responsibility of individual universities. Start by, in consultation with groups of universities, extending the summer term by an additional four weeks to create the space for students in general to catch up.
Additionally, work out where there are material risks to groups of students in particular subjects achieving the required learning outcomes. Where students have not been able to access practical provision, government and regulators need a plan for the relevant subject areas in consultation with relevant PSRBs.
All of which costs money, and lots of it – so universities will need additional government financial backing to deliver it.
Universities should be allowed to make unconditional offers to applicants this year, and applicants should be allowed to firmly accept those offers at an early stage if they want to, allowing universities to plan an enhanced period of transition with some idea of how many students they need to deliver it to, and think through how to continue to comply with consumer rights legislation during that period.
Planning and implementing all this would take time and consideration, but it’s the kind of planning the higher education sector is notoriously rather good at. Just because universities can pivot at speed if pressed doesn’t mean they should be obliged to keep doing it.