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Universities get some Indie SAGE advice on reopening campuses in September

The independent version of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies has advice on reopening campuses. Jim Dickinson considers the implications.
This article is more than 3 years old

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

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:

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.

Policy problems

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?

13 responses to “Universities get some Indie SAGE advice on reopening campuses in September

  1. To issue a recommendation like ‘Universities should focus on providing excellent quality remote learning rather than on opening up campuses that are likely to close again’ on *20 August* surely identifies this as pointless grandstanding. We had to make that decision months ago (and like everyone else in the real world, we had to choose both).

    Very disappointing to see.

  2. I do pity commentators having to pick through all this stuff. There are strong, if tacit, encouragements from the Gov and OfS to open. And 32 of those universities have teaching hospitals so employ epidemiologists and virologists. Would they come to work if they thought it was unsafe? Sage says open, WHO says open (but take account of your local covid levels), Alt sage who have no standing say no. I’m glad I’m not a Registrar.

  3. Really unhelpful timing for this report. There is no chance of changing course delivery between now and the 1st Sept when some of our courses start and this advice contradicts PHE, HSE and Government advice to date.

  4. As much as I share the concern over spikes in infection, the call for mandatory and routine testing is for the birds with our current system. NHS test and trace only test people with symptoms, and do not offer testing to close contacts if they are asymptomatic. They say this is because they want people to comply with self-isolation for 14 days despite test results, but I fear the issue is one of testing capacity. The latest test and trace data shows that turnaround time for results is slowing, and I worry that until someone develops a rapid point of care test that we can use for screening, this is just going to get worse (budding scientists – please make this your priority).

  5. As someone who is terrified of returning to campus, and who has successfully delivered a service online throughout the lockdown, this article makes absolute sense. Many academics are older, students are younger. We are more vulnerable, young people are potential carriers.

  6. As a (very) mature student considering options re second year of MA, I welcome this article. Given the level of (non)compliance I observed on campus re what’s politely referred to as Toilet Etiquette (ie don’t pee on seat, paper in loo, not on floor) and hand washing (lol, what?) I have little faith in the likelihood of compliance with what’s necessary to prevent Covid infection on campus. As pointed out above, many academics are older, and therefore more vulnerable – as are mature students, and many library and canteen staff. We’ll be relying on the same cohort of non-hand-washers to protect us from Covid; how can the rules ever be enforced?

    My course requires practical work and even pre-Covid, gaining access to facilities and equipment was a challenge. Staff have worked hard to address the virtually impossible task of making these areas Covid-safe, and this has resulted in reduction of access to just 20% of the little previously available.

    Reluctantly, I‘m forced to question the value of paying full fees for a vastly reduced university experience, not to mention my doubts about the elements of campus safety that rest with the individual, not the organisation.

  7. I accept this report obviously the university wants the best for there students…. I would have loved they opening of universities till next year and we go full remote the whole of this year is wasted already why put people’s live at risk ! I know that definitely there would be disaster soon when campus opens this soon! We don’t know what is out there there is a mean killer out there and I value my life! When there is life there is hope! Is either we do everything remotely or shut things down until the killer is caught! Elizabeth prospective student 2020

  8. I am very worried about the reopening of our campus. We have old buildings with heating that is distributed through offices on a multi-radiator system passing air along the radiators and lecture theatres with very old fashioned ventilation systems. Very little time to clean down lecture rooms between sessions and relying on the students to do this.

    Despite best efforts re social distancing on campus we cannot control what happens in the local town where students from different bubbles are likely to meet.

    Also, in light of the information from the BBC re many teachers from one school in Scotland going down with Covid – we should not be forced back to campus.

    The efforts made to reopen and safety measures in place can all apply to next Semester. For this one we should remain teaching online.

  9. At the heart of the ‘to open or not to open campus problem’ lies the relentless and destructive competition, particularly between post-1992 universities, for the USP of student experience, which problem also sits at the core of the NSS and equally damaging league table competition rankings.

    Since March, many post-1992s, including my own, have been forced to labour long and expensively to restructure what was originally creaking 1950s and 1960s polytechnic real estate, in order to achieve apparent compliance with constantly changing ‘rules’ on what is Covid-safe. This includes creating an on-campus offer in courses which, even pre-Covid, could have been delivered to a higher standard online. Lockstep lectures delivered to a passive audience in large auditoria should be a thing of the past. I am glad to say for some time now my university has successfully offered personal tutoring, for those who want it, via video conferencing, to suit students who want to avoid difficult or expensive journeys to campus at inconvenient times.

    We really need to get over ourselves that remote learning is always a second best to face to face. But while a Russell Group university knows it can get away with putting its entire offer online, as it will always get the enrolments who want the cache of their type of university, post-1992s will have to play the game of vicarious quality face time catch-up.

  10. Independent SAGE wants “everyone to sign a pledge declaring mutual responsibility for each other’s health and well-being.” This alone would trigger a potential transformation of our whole culture and economy. It cuts through all the other issues. It could help reverse the financialised system of reducing everything to a balance sheet and reinstate complex value over simple cost. I wear a mask to protect your health. Please wear one to protect mine.

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