We need a nationally coordinated approach to reopening universities

With different universities going their own way with plans for the next academic year, Mark Leach argues that a nationally coordinated approach is now needed to safeguard students and the future of the sector.

Moves this week to announce an approach to reopening by the universities of Cambridge and Bolton have been eye-catching – and have already sparked debate in university executive teams around the country. But they point to a piecemeal approach when what we need is coordinated national action to reopen higher education and secure its future.

Faced with mounting uncertainty, Cambridge has taken the plunge and announced most of its lectures will be online until summer 2021, while Bolton will go fully Covid-safe, turning the campus into a socially-distanced environment with temperature scanners and screens in front of lecturers, in something previously only imagined in science fiction.

Elsewhere on Wonkhe, my colleague Jim Dickinson points out the deep contradictions of these positions, as well as the ultimate similarities between them despite initial appearances. However things play out, both moves are likely to be influential on other universities’ own thinking, and the big broad brush signal being sent particularly by Cambridge with its outsized global reach and influence could even move the dial of public opinion and parental expectations towards safer online-only delivery for the year ahead. And Bolton’s first-mover advantage as the “Covid safe” campus, jumping the gun on UUK’s forthcoming guidance on this, looks like a potentially genius marketing move for them.

But as we’ve seen throughout the crisis, when government or regulatory advice has been absent, contradictory, or unworkable, individual providers have been forced to jump – and then others have followed.

Universities’ focus on one big bailout package during the early days of the pandemic is looking more and more like a strategic mistake. The political landscape couldn’t be more hostile to that approach. The request was made to a government that already thought universities were overfunded, is largely devoid of existing levers to create structural change, and that had set up a regulator that from the outset vowed never to bail out universities. Existing measures that have been announced are weak and don’t deal with any of the serious systemic problems for universities caused by the crisis.

The bailout proposal also failed to address the very real issues of student hardship and the plight of final year students graduating into a massive recession, and so lost an opportunity to garner wider public support. Notably, there was only a small reallocation of existing funds to support students in hardship from the government.

What universities offer to prospective students is wholly dependent on funding arriving via the student loan and finance system. Without student recruitment, for most universities, there’d be no product to sell.

Equivocation from the Office for Students, most notably at a recent Commons Education Committee, will only leave current and prospective students and parents more confused.

A national plan

It’s blindingly obvious that a national plan is needed, setting out what universities’ approach will be in September (with a degree of honesty over what will probably not be possible), reassuring new and returning students over finances, boosting students’ rights on accommodation, and setting out what additional support will be needed to address the needs of vulnerable and less advantaged students.

And if the decision is made to enable and support an on-campus experience this year, then underpinning a national plan, the government needs to provide crystal clear advice that enables a mass migration of students across the country (including to and from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland) to form new domiciles, with strangers and for the first time. And if the UK government (and its devolved counterparts) think that this carries too many health risks, then this needs to be set out urgently.

As a side note, the Welsh government has just published its own plan for the post-16 education sector, and what’s notable about it is not that it promises major injections of cash, or purports to know when, exactly, students will be able to return to campus.

It’s that it starts with a consideration of exactly which learners are likely to be the most disadvantaged. It outlines the specific issues arising from the pandemic that are exacerbating existing vulnerabilities among learners. And it promises to work with providers across the post-compulsory sector to try to address or mitigate these issues.

It’s not a foolproof grand plan by any means, but it’s distinctive from the Westminster government’s approach in its acknowledgement that enabling learners to succeed as far as possible will be a test of governmental competence and a crucial lever for post-Covid recovery.

The government’s “no new money” position on the HE bailout to date has some logic, given that the scale of the financial hole facing universities will only be clear in late summer or early autumn.

As such, the most effective way to avoid the need for bailouts for universities, is to bail out students now to provide both students and universities the confidence to be able to move ahead – or take a pause if that’s what’s required by the advice of the time, without the fear of financial ruin.

A coordinated approach can then be devised to allow universities to get back up and running under the shared parameters of the governments scheme, and consensus in the sector about how to deliver HE safely in a Covid context.

A student furlough

So we need to start with a form of national student furlough scheme – one that gives students the ability to study in an uncertain and changing environment, and gives universities the ability to adapt their plans as the pandemic runs its course and government distancing advice changes.

As a very first step, the government should boost the value of student maintenance loans across the board, recognising that parental support and part-time jobs are now completely dry wells for most people. It is the very least that can be done to stave off financial hardship and a retention crisis coming for students on a hitherto unimaginable scale.

Students whose courses can’t be delivered meaningfully online, or who may be significantly disadvantaged by the loss of face to face teaching should have an opportunity similar to the government’s furlough scheme. This could involve providing an extra period (perhaps even a full academic year) of student loan funding to enable transfer to a different course or institution, or to allow universities to offer bridging support or teaching in a related subject until normal service is resumed, without loss of teaching time. Such a scheme would reduce the hugely damaging uncertainty, and increase flexibility both for students and providers. Just one month of the government’s national furlough scheme for the whole economy costs c. £14bn. An entire year of furloughed student loans (though it would unlikely to ever be maxed out) would be several billion pounds cheaper than this – probably £8bn-£12bn depending on lots of different assumptions.

Finally, as the Association of Colleges has called for, there should be real efforts to address the plight of school and college-leavers and university graduates for whom employment opportunities will be much reduced. A national paid volunteering or internship scheme could help to avoid the cycle of unemployment or underemployment which, once started, can be hard to overcome. Universities and colleges, as well as employers, could be instrumental in providing opportunities for young people, if the government was willing to offer some support to do so.

The cost of all this today, though significant, might pale in comparison to what might be needed to bailout universities from collapsing next year after uncertainty in the system causes mass deferrals or unworkable or unaffordable last-minute adaptations to keep campuses open. Or, if they do collapse, rebuilding an economy with fewer higher education opportunities underpinning it and a generation of young people lost to Covid-19. Now that will be really expensive.

3 responses to “We need a nationally coordinated approach to reopening universities

  1. “National” or “Nationally” occur 9 times in the article. On two occasion it refers to the UK (the “government’s national furlough scheme” for paying workers’ wages in the Covid crisis is, currently, UK wide).

    Is it safe to assume that the other 7 times, when it refers to HE policy, the “national” being referred to is England (which isn’t explicitly mentioned once, though the Welsh government isn’t)?

    Wouldn’t it be a good idea to have an editorial principle to make explicit when you mean something that covers the UK by putting “UK” in … and to put in “England” when you mean something that applies to England only, rather than leave the Scottish reader in particular to fathom it out for themselves?

    It used to be so much easier when we could refer to the “HEFCE sector” etc … and when the devolved administration structures largely followed the same principles as the government in England .. but unfortunately for writers and editors that’s not the state of the four UK nations in 2020.

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