Universities’ Covid-19 response: not perfect, but far from cack-handed

Paul Greatrix takes issue with a recent Times leader castigating the response of universities to Covid-19

The country may be stumbling out of lockdown – awkwardly, ill-advisedly, half-heartedly or with delirious joy, depending on your perspective – but there are still plenty of questions and concerns about the start of the new session in universities this coming September.

As many have pointed out this recent BBC report got things spectacularly wrong:

(Although they have since changed the headline to ‘Coronavirus: Should I go to university this year?’)

Universities have not closed since lockdown. Rather most staff and students dispersed and there was a rapid switch to online learning for the remainder of the current session. Moreover, many students who were unable to travel home for whatever reason or did not have anywhere else they were able to go remained in student halls on campus. In addition, some research, particularly into Covid-19 and potential vaccines, continued on campus – as did core estates functions, security, IT, animal welfare services etc.

It does seem rather strange that in the week that all shops are allowed to open, the Premier League restarts, theme parks and zoos are open that there is still discussion not just about the ways in which universities can welcome returning and new students as well as staff safely onto campus but about whether the new session, which is over three months away, should start at all.

Safety first

I get that everyone is worried, rightly, about their safety and their and their friends’ and colleagues’ health on campus. For all universities, as much perhaps as almost any organisation, the over-riding concern – the single most important priority – is the health and safety of students, staff, and visitors. This is not a platitude, it’s a fact. Everything that universities are doing now, taking account of all of the guidance and direction from government, the DfE, Universities UK, the Office for Students and others, but going beyond all of these in many respects, is totally focused on how best to ensure a start of session which is safe and secure for all. And then there are the wider regulatory considerations to take into account too.

It is not that difficult to pick holes in some parts of the guidance and say that some of it goes too far, other bits not far enough and that there are areas missed altogether. Not to mention the absurdity of the new quarantine regulations and the impact they are likely to have on an already uncertain incoming international student cohort.

There is rightly concern about the impact of the changes to be introduced on students and their experiences. Universities have to do the right things here – yes, it is absolutely safety first but it is also about seeking to provide the best possible experience within the constraints and ensuring that the steps taken do not militate against the broader mental and physical health and well-being of students. The new student experience cannot and must not be a slightly upmarket version of solitary confinement with extra socially distanced seminars.

Won’t you please, please help me?

All universities are facing massive and in many cases genuinely critical financial challenges of a scale not seen in 40 years (see this recent piece on the comparison with the 80s cuts experience for example) which means that they are having to spend more on preparing for a very different education, residential, work and research environment at the same time as trying to save money and protect the jobs of many of their staff. And, apart from a little bit of advance payment to assist with cash flow, there has not been much help forthcoming from government for the sector.

Although Gavin Williamson, Education Secretary, writing in the Telegraph recently stated –

Universities need our help – we must maintain education’s jewel in the crown

– we are yet to see material assistance. Whatever your views on the structure of higher education funding and the significant dependence on student fees, domestic and international, derived in very different ways, both of which lead to major issues as we are now seeing, without a huge realignment of public spending priorities in favour of universities – which does seem extraordinarily unlikely at this particular moment as GDP begins its descent from the cliff top – the sector can ill afford any decline in the headline fee it is expecting for each recruited student next session. But we do have to tell students, as honestly and clearly – despite the uncertainties – about what they can expect and then, come the autumn, deliver it as best we can.

Honesty really is the best policy

Megan Ball, President of Winchester SU, recently made a plea to universities for honesty about what students can expect. This seems to me to be a wholly reasonable request, and part of that honesty is of course in some aspects saying we don’t know yet. But we will do our best.

There has been a lot of talk of deferral but as Mary Curnock Cook rightly noted in a recent Times piece, there really is no time like the present. The alternatives are likely to be even more grim:

If some social aspects of university are curtailed in the early part of the academic year, this will be a shared constraint with the rest of the population. If you’re not allowed to socialise, play sport and go to the student union bar at uni, you probably wouldn’t be allowed to had you stayed at home.

There may be many who would like it to be different and would prefer a deferred session start for all to allow for the possibility of more of a traditional campus experience. However, the reality is I fear that it is quite possible that things aren’t going to be normal for some time in any aspect of our lives and not in universities either.

Of course we don’t know how many will defer, how many international students will actually show up and the surveys of intentions of all the different categories of applicants are not helping much other than indicating it is going to be bad, really bad or really, really very bad indeed. Whichever way you look at it this is the most turbulent recruitment round in living memory. And let’s not forget the complexities of institutions trying to manage confirmation and clearing partly or wholly off-campus.

Ill-prepared? Cack-handed?

The Times, in a recent leader, appeared rather to gloat over the possible bankruptcy of universities and accused institutions of being

singularly ill-prepared and cack-handed in their response to Covid-19

No evidence is however adduced for this other than the indication that universities transitioned quickly to online learning and that this is somehow problematic in the circumstances. It is not clear where the exemplar preparations and outstanding responses are to be found, especially given that everyone in government, from the Prime Minister downwards, has in fact praised universities for their efforts, their contribution to the NHS response and their ongoing research efforts.

But there’s more and, as The Times has it, universities have offered

…no serious proposals to reduce or postpone tuition fees, which in almost all cases are at the maximum permitted of £9,000 a year.

The likely bankruptcy of some institutions would be neither surprising nor particularly regretful. Too many are already in trouble, have been cavalier in adapting to straightened circumstances…

Far be it from me to highlight others’ cack-handedness but this brief piece manages to offer three glaring errors in three successive sentences. First it suggests that £9,000 is the maximum level for home undergraduate fees (it is £9,250), secondly the use of “regretful” where “regrettable” is meant and thirdly the use of “straightened” where “straitened” is intended (although this latter error has been corrected since original publication). All pretty shoddy from the former paper of record.

I am still appalled by these statements even leaving aside the errors. The leader is also critical of universities’ “over-reliance” on China, conveniently forgetting the justifiable enthusiasm of successive governments for engaging with the world’s future economic powerhouse and indeed the nature of global markets in which universities have been actively urged by government to participate. The relish with which the paper greets the potential demise of universities though is nothing short of nauseating. If a university does end up collapsing the consequences for its students, staff and alumni and the local communities in which it is based not to mention the economic hit for the country and the reputational damage for our sector will be calamitous. It is an extraordinary position for a national newspaper to take to wish for thousands to be consigned to the scrap heap for alleged “cavalier” behaviour. They should be ashamed to adopt such a position.

Doing the right thing

The Times hasn’t noticed but universities are all trying to do the right things and to act in the best interests of students and staff as well as supporting local and national efforts in relation to the pandemic. The health and safety of each university’s community will be the number one, overarching, unquestionable priority for all (try to imagine if it weren’t – what would that say about universities and their missions?). Whilst institutional survival is unarguably a positive, especially for staff as employees, it is wrong to assume that staff principles and culture built on collaboration and ethical approaches go out of the window because there is a crisis. All are undoubtedly anxious about future finances and the impact of a potential shortfall in student recruitment on the jobs and services we can provide. But everyone is trying to do the right thing, aiming to be honest and open with our staff and our applicants and returning students.

This commitment is more important than the transactional consumer-driven approach higher education has been forced into in recent years. A striking example of this is the latest OfS guidance on “student and consumer protection during the coronavirus pandemic” which requires universities to “be clear to students on how courses will be taught”.

This short document contains 39 references to the student as consumer, no way surely to address the current pandemically challenged higher education environment. But of course the sharp end of consumer law is the logical destination if you do not have much faith in the integrity of universities’ approaches.

There could not be a more challenging time to be doing all of this. I remain enormously proud of the way my colleagues and my University have responded to the crisis. But we have a long way to go yet. A huge programme of work is underway right now in every university on planning safe layouts and operations to allow for current arrangements on social distancing (and to anticipate future changes). These efforts include:

  • A significant expansion of cleaning regimes to ensure safety and hygiene.
  • Supporting Covid-19 related research, which has been in train throughout, and the need to re-open research more broadly in a measured way, again ensuring appropriate health and safety, cleaning and social distancing.
  • Building on the rapid pivot to online learning in March there is now a lot more measured work to ensure that whether socially distanced face-to-face or blended learning then it will all work better in the new session.
  • Planning for the practicalities of the return – ensuring the support and consideration for staff and students in terms of mental health and wellbeing in particular.
  • Maintaining a keen focus on international students – building relationships with applicants and looking to welcome them properly and support on arrival, especially if quarantine arrangements are in place.
  • Engagement with staff, unions and Students’ Unions about the plans.
  • Working with local partners including councils, local resilience fora and communities.

All of this feels like lots of extra work and additional activity and challenge but it is in the context of significantly shrinking budgets. We know we are all going to have a lot less money both as a result for many of a huge decline in international student numbers (possible some home students too and also specific restrictions potentially on English students in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) and also because of added costs around the Covid-19 response. But all of this is very far indeed from The Times’ view of the sector.

Light at the end of the tunnel

We are all trying to do the very best for our students and our staff. Next session will be different. The whole world has been different for everyone since the start of the pandemic. But there is light at the end of the tunnel. The reopening of universities in China for example (although The Times will hate it) is a positive model for the UK. It shows it can be done and something near normal can return. This does depend on getting the virus under control though and that’s not something that is in the hands of universities to deliver. Students’ experience will be different but universities are doing all we can to ensure that they get the learning and the best experience possible. It will pass. Eventually.

Can universities be trusted? It is not enough just to say ‘trust us’ because we are good people with decent intentions trying to do the right things. However, the unwavering commitment to putting the health and safety of students, staff and visitors first and foremost in our consideration and all of the steps universities are taking to prepare for the next session in what is still largely uncharted territory together with the commitments to communication, openness, transparency and engagement should offer reassurance. The professionalism and ethos of our staff matters now more than ever to ensure that our universities survive and our students and our staff continue to thrive.

Despite the bankruptcy mania of The Times, university survival is a pre-requisite for any kind of higher education and elemental to national recovery. That is also undoubtedly in the interests of students, staff, alumni, communities, the economy and wider society. Every member of staff at every university in the country is doing their utmost now to ensure that we deliver what everyone hopes for. The response might not be perfect but it really is a very long way from being cack-handed.

4 responses to “Universities’ Covid-19 response: not perfect, but far from cack-handed

  1. Bravo Paul Greatrix, well said! I have spoken to so many colleagues in universities and they are all working harder than ever and are utterly focussed on the health and well being of their students, staff and their community. They are not doing a perfect job but none of us are right now. We are all handling massive uncertainty and challenge. Wishing failure on any university is wishing failure on students, staff, alumni, suppliers and the local community.

  2. Lovely piece highlighting the hard work the sector is undertaking. However, it is a shame that universities are not working together to create sustainability. Applicants, parents and students must be confused by the mixed messages coming out of universities about their approach to the start of the academic year instead of them playing the same tune.

  3. The problem the sector has is that we all know how much work has gone on, and is going on, to deliver the best student experience in the circumstances. However the Times piece reflects the fact that the sector has done a very poor job of demonstrating its relevance and importance to those who now make or influence government policy, a point that has been made on WonkHE before.

    Now, more than ever, there is the need for a proper sector wide approach that delivers a consistent message. That is a big challenge for a sector where there are some very different agendas and where government policy appears to be ever more actively setting institutions against each other.

  4. What does ‘cack-handed’ even mean? It used to be a criticism of left handed people, assuming we all wiped our behinds with our left hands, and it was therefore unhygienic to use it for anything else. Another way the Times leader writer is seemingly in the dark ages.

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