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We are where we are. But why are we here? Universities and the lockdown

As new national lockdown measures loom large, Jim Dickinson considers the policy implications of keeping campuses "open".
This article is more than 1 year old

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

There’s an arresting moment in this BBC1 Scotland documentary about Covid on Campus when a student just says “why are we here?”

I ask that question a lot. On Saturday morning we discovered that “nobody” at or close to the centre of power is talking about “saving Christmas” – all attention is on the next few weeks. “Only the decision to shorten university terms, which must be taken within days, is pressing”, senior ministers were reported to be saying.

And now we are told that in England as of Thursday, the country will go into lockdown but that “schools, colleges and universities will remain open”. That’s right – you have to stay at home and work from home for a month, but not if you’re education (staff and) students. And then students have to what – go into their own actual lockdown for two more weeks to get home? Sure. What could possibly go wrong?

But is that what’s happening?

The Cabinet Office “guidance” says:

Universities have welcomed students back and we have published guidance advising universities on reopening to ensure they have safety measures in place to minimise the spread of the virus. Universities and adult education settings should consider moving to increased levels of online learning where possible.

In case you’re trying to work out what that means and what to do in relation to your own scenario plans, you’ll see the language basically matches that of DfE Tier 2 (my bolding):

HE providers should move to an increased level of online learning where possible. Providers should prioritise the continuation of face-to-face provision based on their own risk assessment. We expect that, in the majority of cases, this will be for those courses where it is most beneficial (for example, clinical or practical learning and research).

But the Cabinet Office guidance also says:

If you live at university, you must not move back and forward between your permanent home and student home during term time. You should only return home at the end of term for Christmas. We will publish further guidance on the end of term.

…which is a remix of this from DfE Tier 3:

Students should follow government guidance published as part of any additional restrictions applied locally, including where this says that students should remain in their current accommodation and not return their family home or other residential accommodation to reduce the risk of transmitting the virus through travel.

In more ways than one – why are we here?

Open what?

Now before I get into this, I’m all too aware (RIP my mentions) that the hamfisted usages of the word “open” can be hugely frustrating for colleagues who never stopped working when universities were supposedly “closed” in the last big lockdown in the spring.

But let’s assume good faith and charitable intention, and that what government means by “open” is a kind of shorthand for campuses rather than universities – that facilities and services will run and that some teaching will happen in a Covid-secure way. It’s what I might call the “different, but there is a pandemic on” position. And then let’s imagine that “closed” wouldn’t mean quite as “closed” as in the spring – but would mean as it meant in that SAGE recommendation – default online teaching save for courses with practical elements, what some are still adorably referring to as “DfE Tier 3”.

What I’m getting at is that the further into the winter we get, the stranger this “keep universities open” line sounds. They are not, meaningfully (at least insofar as that meaning is as explained above) “open” now. Collectively, and particularly for students, there’s a cigarette paper between what’s happening on campuses and that “default online” position.

One of the things I’ve heard a few times – and pops up in our forthcoming research on non-continuation – is that home students were told that they had to live in the area, but in many cases are studying on the same courses as international students that have been told they don’t even have to be in the UK. Can you see why some students might smell a rat in that scenario?

Open to ideas

When government says it will keep universities “open” in the same sentence as schools, something very interesting is going on. The closure of schools spring-lockdown style would be pretty devastating educationally and very difficult to “move online”. Schools have an essential childcare function that also gives young people somewhere to go and be for large parts of the week. Studies keep telling us that we’re nowhere near close enough to closing the digital divide where online would make sense for older children. And they’re generally local to the family home.

All of these things are different in universities. Outside of heavily practical courses they’re effectively default online already – campuses are quiet, and outside of formal face to face teaching, students are advised not to come onto them anyway. Even where face to face is timetabled, there’s a huge proportion of it that has moved online without some universities being aware of that centrally – and in any case unless it has to operate face to face, most teaching needs to be made accessible online somehow because of the high probability of student self-isolation that comes with high-density living.

In fact, given what we know about the epidemiological risks of low adherence to self-isolation rules, I can’t think of anything more dangerous than not making the teaching that could be experienced online at least accessible in that way.

Open borders

So given all of that, the question on my mind is as follows. There is a second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic sweeping Europe. Germany, France, Belgium etc have all announced a move to “default online” as a result. So why as a nation – and I mean the whole of the UK here (including Scotland and its “restricted blended” that turns out to be no more restricted than it was before) are we insisting on keeping universities “open” when they’re effectively already “closed”?

(And again, if you missed paragraph 4, I mean the government’s mood music meaning of “open” and “closed”, not the realities of keeping a university running in an amended different setup).

In other words – despite the language and framing that all four governments insist on, in higher education this isn’t really a debate about keeping universities “open” or not at all. It’s really a debate about where we want about 1.5m “away from home” young people to be – and if it’s somewhere else, how we achieve that.

What’s clear is that it’s got pretty much nothing to do with education per se. It’s about transport, mental health, physical health, housing and so on. Aspects of it will relate to finances, rent and consumer law. But ultimately we appear to have decided to keep large numbers of young people in tiny, isolating rooms for eight weeks or so not because anyone can justify doing so pedagogically, but apparently because we can’t fathom how we might get them home.

While doing so, we’re letting students get the blame for the second wave in a way that isn’t happening on the continent, and at least in England we’re doing so without additional support to help students to live, make up for lost employment, cope with higher bills or address the costs of self-isolation.

It leaves the overall impression that as a society we haven’t found the capacity as a nation to care about students or their concerns.


How did we get here? I suspect it’s a mixture of things. Some of it is “big [boarding] school” syndrome – the government keeps universities open because it’s decided to keep schools open, and they’re basically seen as the same.

The financial aspects will be in the mix – rent, tuition fees and the contribution that students make to local economies all matter – although probably not in the form of a grand conspiracy with a smoking gun to be revealed in any forthcoming public enquiry. The yearning for normality infecting everyone since the start of the pandemic will also have played its part.

Some of it is about just not noticing – because students are always someone else’s problem. Friday’s release of SAGE paperwork was telling – its modelling subgroup was concerned last month that government couldn’t rely on student testing data because they didn’t know which address cases were being logged to, and it couldn’t rely on ONS infection data because it collected its “households” to sample between May and September and so missed students. In both cases, nobody thought about students.

But overall, in public policy terms, I suspect it’s really a crisis of imagination and capacity. Ever since March, the problems that halting the “great migration” would have caused were just “too hard”. You can’t contain them to your education department or even your own nation. Your twin tactics of market competition and dumping society’s responsibilities onto universities has the unfortunate side effect of atomising the issues in the best of times. But these truly are the worst of times. And so the issues never become urgent or easy enough to warrant the money or the policy smarts required to fix them.

One of the bits of feedback I get a lot is that I tend to point out problems without offering solutions – and that’s fair, although I would also point out that I don’t work for any part of the UK government, I’m neither a VC nor on a university SMT or governing body, and anyway I do usually offer solutions for those that read this far.

But for all the complexity, I think the solutions here are fairly simple.

Open solutions

What the spring told us academically is that when you put in place a safety net for students, the standards sky doesn’t fall in and it gives them the reassurance and confidence to do their best. That’s still what we should do here for universities and students – back them up and free them up to give them real choices about next term, in a way that would allow them to be more open and creative about what happens next.

You protect people’s jobs. You thank those keeping higher education running who’ve barely had a day off in months. You let universities go “default online” if that’s the right thing epidemiologically and locally, with back up on the financials and legals. You let students move home and pull out of their rental contracts if they need to, with back up on the financials and legals. For those that really need the face to face, you organise optional academic and non-academic enrichment on campus, with further back up on the financials and legals.

You give people the maximum opportunity to cope with a global pandemic and still progress their education if that’s the right thing for them. You notice that students have no part time work even though your funding system assumes it. You pay the student nurses about to save our NHS again by abandoning every last shred of pretence that they’re supernumerary – and you certainly forgive their tuition fee debt. And you praise to the high heavens the actions of an army of student organisations, volunteers and activists working 70 hour weeks trying to care for others, rather than denouncing their activity as “niche”.

And even if in the normal times you’re of a political persuasion that champions institutional competition and individual endeavour, you accept that these are not normal times. Those tactics will have to wait until there’s a vaccine.

But I’ve said all of those things too often. So I was thinking the other day about what it is, or rather who it is, that helps me sharpen my thinking and get me out of a rut when I have an entrenched and increasingly unjustifiable position on something. That person is my five year old son, and that process is his relentless and repeated deployment of the word “why?”

Maybe that’s what we all ought to do next. When Boris Johnson next stands up in Number 10 or the Commons, and pronounces that he will “keep universities open” – even if it’s not entirely clear what he means – we should insist that he is asked why, over and over again. It might actually get us somewhere – else.

6 responses to “We are where we are. But why are we here? Universities and the lockdown

  1. Very well said, Jim. The only place where I would differ is on your downplaying of the financial aspects of the decision to keep universities ‘open’. If universities take teaching officially (as opposed to de facto) online, then a significant proportion of students will want to vacate their university-owned accommodation and/or demand a fee reduction, and universities may take a big financial hit. The government does not want to see multiple universities go bankrupt, but at present it is equally unwilling to pick up the tab itself. Keeping universities ‘open’ avoids both alternatives by maintaining the student income stream, i.e. making students pay. So it’s all about – as you put it – ‘the financials and legals’.

    1. Whether students would ‘demand’ a fee reduction is one thing. Whether they ‘should’ is another, Andrew. The costs of a degree online are higher not lower – since all the other costs are still in place. The pedagogic level of the education has not diminished, or to the extent it has, then only marginally. It is not as if most uni degrees have suddenly become on-line degrees and the awarding institutions have suddenly got the low cost base of on-line teaching institutions. What I don’t like about the assumption that students deserve fee rebates is that it buys in to the whole picture of universities as retailers of educational and social experiences, and because the social part of the product has worsened, the fee should be lessened. Don’t get me wrong I’m not a supporter of the current funding structure. The best solution might be for the government to forgive a small portion of the student loans for pandemic hit students, which in most cases is money they will never recover anyway. (This by the way does not bear on the necessity of universities to get rent from students – it is only about fee reductions. The rent question needs to be separated out. In some cases the contracts on new student housing leave universities facing the bill for unpaid rents on empty student rooms. And in most cases I guess they need the rents as an income stream.)

  2. “The government does not want to see multiple universities go bankrupt, but at present it is equally unwilling to pick up the tab itself.”

    We are about to find out – there are about ten Universities about to enter the Restructuring Regime or at least in discussion to do so.

    1. Agreed. I think the university does want to see some universities go bankrupt so it can usher in its favored private or rather for profit providers to offer “diversity of provision” i.e. cheap 2 year business and stem degrees. But it probably wants to hand-pick the universities it allows to go bankrupt, rather than let the chips fall where they may.

  3. We have to view the pandemic for what it is – exceptional. People are hanging on to (or losing jobs) and education can’t be paused. So we have to make the best of it. Delaying a year or two years of education is a disaster for everyone that follows and the recovery will be bad enough. What we need are ways of navigating this and new ways of ensuring knowledge and qualifications can exist as we are, as of yet we have no way out of this. If students drop out this year, then will they even get back in next year? And why should next year’s intake, possibly facing the same challenges, be affected. It’s not as though anyone signing up to HE this year didn’t know what was going on and that the winter ahead would be hard.

    And then there’s the disastrous behaviour of large sections of the student body (secondary, FE but significantly HE) – continuing to ignore social distancing, hygiene and holding mass gatherings in halls, and causing massive infection rates that are now translating to infections in older groups and directly causing a second lockdown. Sadly the age group being dealt with have large numbers of people within it who just make the challenges far far greater than they need to be.

  4. Some interesting replies above. My take on the current picture is HMG would like some ‘providers’ to disappear, so funding streams can be redirected, both to ‘preferred’ Universities and ‘skilled trades’ training.

    Taking residential letting (Halls) income, my employer currently achieves ~£12m PROFIT from hall’s after operating costs, that’s a pretty big chunk to lose, so keeping students in Hall’s is key for the University, the spreadsheet shows many others are in the same situation. Refunds have to be avoided for most as the other income streams won’t cover the shortfall…

    We’re seeing the ‘customer is always right’ effects across the campus, with students demanding the right to ignore one way systems for Covid safety, to close windows required for Covid avoidance ventilation (Academic’s are scared to say no as the NSS response from students can/will lead to no upgrades or even job loss). John D’s last sentence is entirely accurate.

    Then there’s this:


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