Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Outside of the nuts and bolts of the teaching and learning experience, one of the things being “sold” to students in depictions of their wider student experience is “freedom”. But what sorts are on offer?

Traditionally, universities have tried to stress two things. First there’s the sort of freedom you get from the move into adulthood – you’re away from home, you can manage your own time, you can choose your own friends, and you can meet new people and stay out all night. The Vengabus is coming, and everybody’s jumping.

But partly because of politics, and partly because of the precarity of this shift from being treated as a “child”, universities also offer a different kind of freedom – freedom from harm. Campuses are marketed as safe environments. Universities show off crime figures for their towns and cities. Accommodation is arranged into hermetically sealed flatlets. And counselling and welfare services are promoted to reassure worried parents.

Binary divides

Interestingly, the two concepts are often posed as opposites. Where the debate between “freedom from” and “freedom to” manifests in relation to speech, surveys like to tell us that x per cent of students believe in the safety of speaker bans and “no platform” to protect students from discrinination and harassment, whilst an opposing y per cent believe in untrammelled debate as being an essential component of higher education.

Occasionally better surveys reveal that in truth, students want to have their pie chart cake and eat it – it turns out they want freedom and safety all at once. And if you ever wanted to see an example of trying to offer both of these apparent opposites all at once but failing, shut your eyes and imagine these “student social bubbles” some people are still talking about actually working.

These concepts are not easy bedfellows at the best of times – and these are not the best of times. All summer now Universities UK and individual universities have been keen to stress that campuses will be Covid secure “in line with government and public health guidance”. It’s selling safety on universities’ behalf.

But when UUK chief executive Alistair Jarvis says universities will also offer “in-person social opportunities to students, including outside events and sporting activities”, “sporting, fitness and wellbeing activities”, “working with bars and cafes in the local community” and a “full and exciting university experience”, he’s also offering a tantalising taste of freedom to young people that have obviously been craving it more than ever.

The question is whether, this summer, both concepts have been oversold. NUS says a third of students are worried about safety, staff are inevitably starting to raise concerns, and there are growing worries about the ability of Estates Directors to actually create Covid-secure campuses as our understanding of viral transmission improves.

Most UK universities won’t want the expense or blame associated with their own student testing regimes, mask and thermometer supply, symptom tracking apps or bespoke tracing arrangements – but as we get closer to September, pressure may grow to go above and beyond the fledgling NHS Test and Trace programme as universities rush to offer reassurance to embassies, local authorities and worried parents.

Meanwhile stories continue to reach us from North America about students out in the community. “Do you really want to be the reason that Tulane and New Orleans have to shut down again?” said Erica Woodley, the dean of students at Tulane University last week, as she hit out at “disrespectful, selfish and dangerous” partying during the Fourth of July weekend. “This type of behavior is indefensible and truly shameful,” she said, adding in bold caps that students who hosted gatherings with more than 15 people would face DIRE PUNISHMENT: SUSPENSION OR EXPULSION.

The Telegraph has kicked off Fleet Street’s silly season (yes, it really is August next week) with a piece headlined “Universities to ban house parties and overnight stays as part of social distancing rules”, and for a couple of weeks now US universities have been announcing dramatic U-turns on their plans for a return to campus. With “safety” in question, are universities about to have to reveal how little “freedom” might be on offer too?

As the weeks tick on, the messaging gets clearer – if this all goes wrong, it won’t be the government’s fault, or universities’ fault, it will be students’ fault. But is shaming and threatening students really the right approach? And if it’s not actually possible for students to be socially connected, mentally healthy and free of Covid-19, do we need to think again about September and the great “return to campus”?

Is anybody listening?

You might well argue that one of the strange things about all of this has been the apparent lack of attention being paid by the public health and government scientific community to these wider risks of reopening university campuses and face to face teaching. But I have good news. It looks like someone has been listening after all.

First we learned that directors of public health have been asked to consider deploying significant mobile testing capacity in university towns and cities in September. Now, as part of the regular publication of minutes and papers from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), we can now see that all of the issues we’ve noted previously and more have been considered in various papers that describe interactions between SAGE and the Department for Education (DfE). And it’s all pretty sobering stuff.

As ever with SAGE, we’re some weeks behind with the publication. For example, in a paper from DfE from July 1st that briefs SAGE, we get a run down of the main risks on reopening, which tells us that DfE was/is thinking about:

  • “A significant movement of around 1 million students across the country, with potential impact on the transmission of the virus, at the beginning and end of terms;
  • “Students moving from their family households to set up new, temporary households during term time, and will want to return to their family households at the end of terms. This may vary from small shared households with fully mixed living environments, to large scale university accommodation blocks;
  • “Additional pressure on public transport infrastructure around universities, particularly if there is a continued need to limit capacity to preserve social distancing;
  • “Commuter students, who travel regularly to university from home. About 25% of full-time undergraduate students are now commuter students. In 2018, in 10 universities, including City University London, University of Wolverhampton and University of Bradford, more than 50% of students lived in the parental home.
  • “International students arriving from overseas will create a further potential impact on the transmission of the virus, although some students, depending on the country they are arriving from, will have to comply with a 14 day self-isolation expectations  upon arrival to the UK.

We also get this fascinating DfE slide deck from 1 July which looks at student and staff numbers, student mobility and regional inflows caused by HE, travel patterns and guesses on things like the “number of students that will require face to face teaching”, contact hours and class sizes – and one of the more interesting revelations is that we learn that DfE has been working on two autumn scenarios to understand impacts:

Scenario 1: Effective containment and testing

  • What this looks like: testing, contact tracing and physical distancing can contain outbreaks
  • What this means for HE: the sector opens in September but with changes to teaching provision, including online learning and physical distancing rules on campus (such as one-way systems). Entertainment and student services may be limited but open. Local lockdowns at providers may be required.

Scenario 2: On and off restrictions

  • What this looks like: lockdown measures are imposed and reversed in a clinical way to control outbreaks
  • What this means for HE: providers either teach online for the autumn term and return to campus in January, or progress with a January start and compressed academic year, or both.

What is of course remarkable about these scenarios is that almost without exception, ministers, Universities UK, universities and sector bodies have all so far been talking a lot about and talking up Scenario 1, without ever revealing to students that the decidedly more difficult Scenario 2 could be on the cards. So much for “honest and upfront information” to aid student decision making. Can OfS or CMA fine DfE over compliance with consumer law?

There’s then an updated paper from 21 July which set out what we know (things like “universities are planning to offer a blend of online and face to face learning”) and then takes the opportunity to flag a series of issues and questions for the scientists to look at. These include:

  • A desire on DfE’s part to understand the efficacy of protective measures to break chains of transmission and ensure Covid security;
  • A need to know how well the concept of “bubbles” might serve to inhibit or accelerate transmission;
  • Advice on student accommodation rules, households and moving in/out;
  • Wanting to know potential implications for internal migrations at the start and end of term, and the relative risk for new cohorts of students in forming new “households” and course groups.
  • Needing to understand impacts on local healthcare; testing capabilities; and public transport and other infrastructure at the influx and subsequent patterns of movement of students.

Depending on your point of view, it’s either reassuring that DfE and SAGE are looking at these things, or terrifying that they’re not already sorted given, as I said, the reassuring mood music everyone has been issuing to students.

Specific concerns

We learn that universities have been seeking additional or bespoke guidance on some specific areas, including:

  • University libraries, particularly taking into account the range of requirements from lending; studying texts that cannot be removed and may need sensitive handling; and the use of libraries as a workspace for some students.
  • Performance-based courses: particularly taking into account the challenges of social distancing in these contexts, and the additional risk of some activities (e.g. singing).
  • The potential need to respond to a renewed regional lockdowns and/ or an outbreak within a university – DfE is keen to understand the risks and risk factors for an outbreak and/ or a super-spreader event within a university, and the relative hierarchy of measures that a university can and should enact – along with local authorities – to respond to an outbreak.

We also get – for the first time – evidence that someone, somewhere is thinking about student behaviour off campus. “University student populations have broader ranges of activity, autonomy and interactions than school populations” says the paper in asking for “any observations that SAGE members may have.”

Amazingly, the note also says that it would be useful to understand what if any additional Covid-secure measures would be recommended beyond those in place to manage wider social interaction, arguing that there is a case for additional guidance setting out clearly the accountability for complying with government guidelines “in particular in relation to student union organised events.

Do the people that work at DfE not understand that UK higher education students’ unions a) have sophisticated systems and expertise in event management, risk assessment and student safety b) have been the ones repeatedly warning about safety to their universities and c) it’s not going to be SU organised events that cause the night time problem in September…

Bursting the bubble

So what did SAGE have to say? There’s two papers here – one with some comments from the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (SPIMO), and a wider paper from a Children’s Task & Finish Group on risks associated with the reopening of education settings in September.

The SPIMO paper is moderately terrifying, not least because the first thing we learn is that the group thinks DfE wasn’t asking the right questions. “We are concerned that this [DfE] commission does not consider the most effective testing and monitoring strategies within universities, nor outbreak response planning”, says the paper, adding that “modelling could add value here.” They add:

It is essential that universities have clear protocols in place for reactive closures and/or quarantines, and how this interacts with segmentation of the student and staff populations (e.g. whether the household is quarantined, and contacts isolated; or if swab-positive students are sent to separate residences for self-isolation etc). This should explicitly consider vulnerable groups, as well as wider implications for student welfare.

We do get some helpful critique of this “bubbles” stuff people have been thinking about and quickly dismissing. SPIMO reckons that infection dynamics within a university are likely to be highly dependent on the interplay of different layers of networks across years of study, courses, accommodation and wider social networks (e.g. societies, sports). Apparently both Bristol and Warwick have been doing modelling on their populations and context, but the committee thinks more modelling would help to identify “commonalities and generalisable insights.”

What they do advise is that alignment of student networks or segments may help to reduce transmission risk – which they figure could be achieved by “nesting” living networks within teaching or study networks, ensuring that students on the same course/modules also live together.

Of course, in advising this they instantly reach the conclusion that the rest of us have – noting that this will be more difficult to achieve in universities “where students do not already self-select in this way, and for students in private accommodation”, as well as needing “to be balanced against wider considerations such as student diversity and mental health.” It’s not going to work, basically. You can drop this one from the working groups now, folks.

Risky business

There are other concerns from SPIMO. “There is a risk that students falling ill and/or testing positive return to their parental homes, rather than isolating at university,” which it figures would be highly problematic given the potential transmission to household members and the wider community – risking the importation of cases into a new area and/or part of the community.

Fascinatingly, the group thought that migration at the end of term warranted more attention than that at the start of term – as universities may act as “amplifiers”:

If there is an outbreak at a university (even if not widespread transmission), then students returning home could pose a risk for spread across the UK. Students are also more likely to be integrated with the wider community at their home address than at their term-time address.

Worryingly, SPIMO is working on the assumption that as part of efforts to manage social distancing effectively, universities should be planning to “timetable effectively in a way that staggers arrival and departure times in a way that will also reduce pressure on public transport to an extent.” Given some of the conversations we’ve had with timetablers so far, we’d chalk that one up as in the “optimistic” box.

As well as considering infection of university staff, they also looked at the potential for what is called here infection “spillover” into the local community. This, they reason, will depend on the characteristics of the university (or universities) and level of integration with the wider population – and potential “seeding” of cases from student migrations could be modelled – but any findings “will be highly dependent on background incidence, regional variation and whether university outbreaks are in place”.

And anyway, “the response to sick students, and whether they return home during quarantine is likely to be more of an impact” – concluding that further work on testing and monitoring, and outbreak response should be a higher priority.

And there’s more

Finally there’s a summary paper from the SAGE Children’s Task & Finish Group. There’s various nuggets here.

  • First the TAFG notes a study that sampled university classrooms that were cleaned regularly but repeatedly found coronavirus 229E (an endemic coronavirus responsible for the common cold), suggesting frequent recontamination. Maybe the cleaning protocols and interaction with timetabing you’ve been working off will turn out to be inadequate.
  • There’s a “push me pull you” flavour to some of the content on unintended consequences – if you’re a university keen to keep students largely off campus, do bear in mind that “a decision in a university setting to not reopen social areas may prompt staff and students to visit external cafés or travel home to eat, which could lead to higher risk of transmission.” In other words, universities will likely have to consider risks in the community, not just on campus.
  • The TAFG is also worried about… loud lecturers! It says that the enhanced use of audio equipment (“e.g. microphones”) may be particularly beneficial in lecture type environments in universities to reduce the use of projected voices that could generate higher levels of droplets.
  • On bubbles, the TAFG says that SAGE has “consistently advised caution” around the application of bubbles, but for universities recommends that the term “bubble” is not used – instead, where it can be done, referring to “segmenting of the population” instead.

Right. What’s next?

Remember those five principles to get to a “new normal”? The revelations in this dump of docs certainly don’t appear to meet the tests on student and staff input. It’s almost as if we need to specifically avoid transparency over these safety machinations in case it puts off applications. And to be honest “needs of the most vulnerable should take priority” doesn’t get much of a look in here either.

As noted above, all of these papers are from early in July – and we would have to assume that SAGE minutes will later discuss the two central SPIMO recommendations around further work on testing and monitoring, and outbreak response. Who knows what conclusions might come from that, what that might mean for higher education and where responsibilities will lie for following it all up. Even if some of this stuff becomes “policy”, where that all lands between DfE, OfS, local authorities and individual providers is anyone’s guess.

It might raise many more questions than it answers. For example, another paper in the pack from the Academy of Medical Science on coping with the winter stresses a need to carefully monitor universities, and survey students for symptoms, to pick up early evidence of a resurgence in cases – but how?

This week students’ unions have been talking to me about the NHS test and trace self isolation rules – and they’re worried. Imagine. You’re on a floor of 20 people in halls that you’re counting as a household, and you’re on day two of freedom having been in self-isolation for a fortnight because you’re an international student. You develop a dry cough.

Do you tell everyone you have the dry cough knowing you’re consigning them to being indoors for two more weeks? Do you put off the inevitable and hope the cough passes? Do you keep it a secret so as not to get the blame? Do you admit to NHS T&T you were at a party last night?

You go through with it and miss the two weeks of awkward social activity in tents the university has put on. But others on the floor ignore it. Do you grass them up? Who takes action if you do, anyway? Especially if you’re in a PBSA block.

Collaboration required

Maybe we should wait for SPIMO and SAGE to get there in the thinking. But given the reassuring mood music, the HE budgets in central government, the public health budgets in local government, the tuition fee income in the sector, and the money in regulators and sector bodies, surely citizens and students would assume that a tiny slice of that has already been spent on working out clever sector wide answers to these questions. It’s almost August. Surely we aren’t hurtling into September – a sector of this size with this number of people – hoping for the best?

In theory, we take a tiny, tiny slice – say a pound of all of those tuition fee payments about to tumble in – and fund Britain’s best behavioural scientists to work this out. We have a sector and student specific symptom tracking app. We have a nationally agreed approach on conduct rules and encouragement on symptom disclosure. We collaborate with NHS T&T on regional, student-specific contact tracing approaches. We model amendments to the questions asked. We ask how we might influence landlords. And then we ask SPIMO and SAGE to look at our lovely proactive work.

If the university sector – you know, the home of science and research and stuff – put its head together and tried on this one, it might even learn new things about how to influence positive health amongst young people, address social isolation, and halt community transmission of viral infections. And – in the teeth of a deep moral and health panic in the autumn – would save its reputation.

Whether all of this happens or not – and I hope it either does or quickly looks unnecessary – what really is suddenly laid bare by the SAGE papers is that those central two offers to arriving students of “freedom” and “safety” are being made on very shaky ground indeed. Right now students are signing accommodation contracts, booking flights, paying fees deposits and signing Ts and Cs with two week cooling-off periods – whilst major questions from the government’s own scientists remain unanswered. And people think I’m being extreme when I keep going on about the Fyre Festival.

10 responses to “Universities get some SAGE advice on reopening campuses

  1. All very worrying. The huge number of students who commute from home (for whom “you’re away from home” doesn’t apply) are mentioned once but never again. Are there any plans for them?

  2. We are talking of universities, not care homes for the elderly and demented. Young people are more likely to die of alcohol poisoning than Covid-19

  3. However those of us who work in universities or live in the same town/city as them are not all so young or healthy, and will also be adversely affected by any new outbreaks.

  4. Although universities have often been keen to emphasise ‘blended learning’, some students may not feel safe with face to face teaching nor living in university accommodation. There may be merit in getting a sense of the number of students who have a preference for all on line teaching in view of the current extraordinary learning and wider environment. This group may have a preference for not physically returning, maybe we should respect that and try and establish which students may wish to exercise that choice? Ultimately lower volumes of staff and students on campus, and in the wider community, may serve to help reassure and reduce risk.

  5. The trouble is, universities need to fill their campus accommodation so as to make ends meet, given the drop in income on so many fronts. So they will be driven to shepherd first years into face to face teaching.

  6. Not enough consideration given to teaching ideas where students are present together in the room and interacting with each other, but the member of staff facilitating interacts with them remotely (WebEx style). This is a much safer way that keeps most of the value of the face-to-face experience.

  7. The concerns raised here apply to schools also. Students may travel less far but are to be crowded into ‘bubbles’ of several hundred in many secondary schools. It would be wonderful if academics and those commenting on HE could speak up for schools too. Teachers, pupils and parents are being bullied into a massively risky experiment!

  8. And students at many universities go home multiple times a semester, interacting with parents and other relatives, and work off campus in supermarkets and bars. They may be at lower risk of being seriously ill (not no risk), but they are relatively high risk for being asymptomatic vectors I would have thought

  9. It’s started already in Sheffield. Students – mostly male – pass my apartment when returning to their digs from a night out and they are in town, in groups and intoxicated. No signs of social distancing when they’re in that state.

  10. It’s a very good job our NHS workers haven’t taken this pusillanimous approach, otherwise we’d have kept our hospitals shut wouldn’t we, to safeguard our key workers?

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