All university courses should be offered remotely and online, unless they involve practical training or lab work.
That’s the headline conclusion in a new consultation statement from “Indie Sage”, the shadow version of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE). It’s been meeting, in public, every Friday lunchtime – and alongside thematic Q&A sessions on stuff like schools, test and trace and the debate on masks, it’s been putting out these discussion documents that the public can feed into that then later re-emerge as final recommendations.
It’s not exactly packed with good news for the sector or students, although it’s pretty good news if you (like me) have been shouting worries into the wind and not getting lots back.
The first question raised in the document is why we would want to treat universities any differently to any other large organisations – not least because most of the guidance so far does just that. Indie SAGE thinks there are plenty of reasons:
- The mass movement and mass migration of a million or more people around the world, at multiple points of the year (at least the start and end of every term, if not more frequently).
- The way in which the diversity of providers makes the implementation of consistent safe behaviours so complex.
- The fact that most students in the UK are under 25 and therefore more likely to be asymptomatic carriers of Covid-19, and thus undetected, along with a concern that the spread may be masked by so-called “Freshers’ flu”.
- Increasing evidence of a “surge of infections” in young people which has led to the WHO issuing a specific warning.
- Most students are in the age group which the latest data shows has “the lowest level of both complete and partial compliance with social distancing rules”.
All these things are true – but Indie SAGE has a bunch of extra worries too that regular readers of Wonkhe will recognise:
- It notes that university students are adults with more resources and more autonomy to decide where to travel to, where to live, etc – “including whether or not to travel to their parental home if they fall ill”.
- It’s concerned that if campus facilities are closed, this “may prompt staff and students to visit external cafés or travel home to eat, which could lead to higher risk of transmission.”
- It is worried that local spikes in cases may be attributed to imported students – leading to “local resentment, conflict, weakened town/gown relations”.
- The “heterogeneity” of university populations “intensifies opportunities for targeted stigma” and of “difficult relationships between students leading to blame culture”.
- There is a “particular intensity, variety, number, and duration of (teaching) interactions”, with “constantly changing populations, in enclosed indoor spaces, increasing the likelihood of superspreader events”
- It notes that students “also socialise together – in each other’s rooms, in university bars, at parties, at sports and other clubs, with alcohol”.
- It is terrified, as I am, that students “may be reluctant to get tested if it means they and their friends must isolate for 14 days”.
- And my favourite – there is “potential to make assumptions about what motivates people” leading to “stereotyped assumptions” about what students want and what they will and will not adhere to mitigating behaviours.
Amen to all that.
So given the worries, what is the current state of play in addressing them? This is where things start to get difficult. Central to the Indie SAGE critique here is the commitment offered up by UUK back in mid-June, that:
most students can expect significant in-person teaching and a wide range of social activities and support services an engaging academic and social experience”
The argument is that that commitment – issued to shore up demand and dissuade students from deferring – leads to a need to address “complex logistical and behavioural practices and mitigations”. Add in a bit of marketisation and you get a deadly mix – what the document says is a “strong drive” (in comparison to other countries) to operate as close as possible to “business as usual”, that in turns focuses less on health and safety, and more on getting fee income in.
That would all be difficult enough – but when you layer on a dose of institutional autonomy, and couple it with local variations in approach by public health authorities, things start to look much worse. The document argues that:
There is a lack of clarity and consistency around testing and containment, particularly for universities that have campuses that cross boundaries or have campuses in multiple regions.
There is variation across the UK in how universities are planning for core activities such as in-person teaching in enclosed indoor spaces.
There is no consistent guidance about likely maximum numbers that can gather in Covid secure premises, including student societies, sports fixtures, drama, music, debating, and so on.
Universities often comprise tens or hundreds of separate buildings which vary enormously in their affordances or constraints for physical distancing and reducing aerosol transmission via inconsistent ventilation abilities.
What counts as a household, a bubble, and a gathering, is complex and varied.
Segmentation is not possible as in schools as students take courses in different departments and any such division would require a drastic change in course requirements and structure that cannot be made at short notice.
Like elsewhere in the population, there is a need to balance the risk of student mental health linked to isolation versus risk of transmission.
Amen to all of that too.
What is to be done?
All of that results in five sets of recommendations designed to mitigate risk, and crucially create strong social norms – what Indie SAGE calls “a collective sense of responsibility and personal agency” to avoid university closures.
Before arrival, it calls for surveys of staff to assess needs, concerns, and preferences around working on campus and teaching in person. It calls for mandatory testing of staff and students either before they come to campus or as soon as they arrive on campus. It then wants regular testing to capture asymptomatic infections, and spot potential outbreaks.
It also wants a universal statement on adhering to quarantine in student codes of conduct, online training and information on the virus mandatory for all, fnd for everyone to sign a pledge declaring mutual responsibility for each other’s health and well-being.
Once term has started, it wants to see students monitored daily during quarantine (how this works out in HMOs and private halls who knows), guaranteed support for self-isolating students, mandatory use of face coverings, and clear universal guidance for how to configure new households in shared accommodation.
In terms of teaching, Indie SAGE wants only essential in-person teaching to go ahead (lab- and practice-based subjects, basically) partly because doing so will reduce the chaos of in-person and hybrid models for staff and students who may develop symptoms and need to self-isolate or may at any point be subject to local lockdown. Online delivery should be the norm rather than the exception.
It also wants to see per-room risk assessments to ensure that key health and safety measures “are not left to individual interpretation, assessment, or choice”, and published thresholds of infection within certain subjects/labs which would require closing of that facility.
There’s a whole section on equality and diversity. It calls for regular surveys of staff to elicit and act upon concerns (leading to an “individual risk assessment” mutually agreed with each relevant member of staff, a social agreement which makes everyone responsible for each other’s health, and even a “social media code of conduct” to mitigate conspiracy theories.
And for those that end up off campus, it wants to see access to technology, study materials and safe spaces; a means tested student-at-home fund to which students can apply for grants to support home learning; surveys of students who are studying at home to check they have adequate provision; and Covid-safe local libraries in which at home students can study safely – as well as a subsidised or free-to-students fast broadband service.
I wanna get loaded
This is, remember, just the independent version of SAGE – none of this is official yet, and as I note here, we are days away from the start of term. In fairness lots of the above recommendations have already been implemented in some universities, but lots have not – and because this is a group of scientists, they don’t make any particular recommendations on who should be responsible, who should coordinate, who should fund and whether these things should be anyone’s policy other than a local university.
There’s also talk of lots of the ideas and issues raised being worked on by groups of universities, apparently with UUK and DfE involvement. But if Indie SAGE isn’t reassured with a month to go, is there a particular reason why the rest of us should be?
In the absence of anything else emerging, this is a fascinating intervention. We will now need politicians, in all four nations, to respond. The question for them will be whether it is wise to be hurtling into the few weeks trying to manage the central dichotomy the paper raises.
If Indie SAGE is right – and we should be avoiding face to face teaching unless it’s absolutely required – why on earth are we moving millions of young people around the country and the world to experience it, promising them freedom when Indie SAGE says that is scientifically unwise and pedagogically unnecessary?