Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

It’s great to see Universities UK offering a “full and exciting” student experience involving things like “outdoor sport” and “working with bars”.

This sort of commitment to understanding students’ lives and the wider student experience is very welcome.

But here’s a question. Let’s say your classic “away from home” undergrad receives four hours contact a week on four modules, lives with some new students in a flat and is allocated a slice of some organised outdoor sport. Outside of that five-hour schedule, are we expecting them to interact with these six new social groups a) online b) physically c) not at all or d) it’s not our problem. Fastest finger first!

We do need to know. Lots of universities have been trumpeting in-person freshers weeks over the past few days. But unless they’re massive fans of pizza flyers or the Vengaboys, freshers weeks are not important to students in and of themselves – they’re important because they tee up friendships and belonging beyond that first week. There’s not really much point having a socially distanced freshers’ fair and joining the Live Action Roleplaying Society if students can’t meet the other people the following week and do some live-action roleplaying.

And what are we expecting the returners to do? Live in the same city as all their friends but not see them? When they’re being told the risks for their age group are really low? And sorry if this sounds a bit racy. Are students allowed to have sex in September?

Living in the city

There has been lots of local concern about this announcement from Queen’s University Ontario that up to 2,300 students will be able to live in on-campus residences this autumn. That’s just 50 per cent of its normal capacity, but locals are still worried that the campus is essentially becoming a landlocked cruise ship.

Now clearly lots of capacity in the UK is flats, not old-style halls, and of course, there aren’t really any double occupancy rooms. But if demand holds up, what “safe” capacities are universities offering in university and private halls? If it’s not 90 per cent there’s a real risk of the system not having capacity. If it’s less than 90 per cent there’s a risk that parts of the student housing system fail financially – putting those left in those buildings at real risk. So what’s the plan – at a city level, not just an institutional one?

Most importantly, what happens when there’s an outbreak in student accommodation? Will the sector point at government and say “yes but you didn’t tell us it was unsafe”? Because you can bet the government will point back and say “yes but you didn’t tell us it was unsafe”. Unless we’re comfortable with it happening, of course – herd-immunity-amongst-the-young style. Are we?

It’s also difficult to see from the comms what universities are doing with and for students that are shielding, and disabled students who at greater risk of harm from Covid-19. No doubt many academics are confident that such students could be taught online. But what about their lives?

Should they come to the city in September or stay at home? Would these students not being able to mix with others – when everyone else can – be acceptable legally, socially, morally or pedagogically? To get a feeling of what life might be like for students, have a play with this interactive lived experience story where you move through a day of face to face teaching from the perspective of a student.

Circular debates

As we move from a simple and rapid national lockdown to this complex localised easing phase, two major issues seem to be dominating the debate.

First, there is an endless example comparison war playing out on social media between those who think it’s happening too fast, and those who think it’s happening too slowly – with both sides grabbing at whatever science they can find to bolster their position.

Tweets either proclaim that a socially distanced Conga will cause a second wave, or that the government is destroying children’s education by not allowing a low-risk group to sit together at school. As we’ve noted on the site before, the see-saw between freedom from and freedom to may yet spill out onto campus in deeply unpleasant ways come September.

Related to that is a parallel comparison war that focuses on inconsistencies. There have always been myriad inconsistencies to the way people, rules, laws and the treatment of other people – but in normal circumstances, there is a level of acceptance of such inconsistencies because they are just the same as they have always been. A global pandemic turns all of that on its head and forces us to confront – sometimes in helpful ways (see Black Lives Matter or the row over free school meals), and sometimes in unhelpful ways.

A good example of that is probably space and place. In the early part of the pandemic, it was fascinating to see what was happening in other countries – both in society in general and in universities specifically – to attempt to draw useful comparisons. But it’s been increasingly frustrating to spot inconsistencies in terms of place – witness the different timings, tone and in some aspects actual approach to easing in the four UK nations so far.

So the next phase, to avoid another national shutdown, will be focussed very much on place. And it’s is going to be very difficult indeed.

We’re struck by this piece in the Tivyside Advertiser that reflects on the reasons why Ceredigion has so far been one of the counties least affected by Covid-19. At its first public cabinet meeting since lockdown in March, the Ceredigion leader and council chief executive said “working closely with Aberystwyth University” and “helping students get home” had “lowered the population of the county to the people that actually live here” (students are never proper residents, are they) which allowed “health services to cope and the predicted number of deaths avoided”.

This “send the students away” approach might have been fine in March, but it doesn’t look immediately compatible with the university’s statement online – stressing a plan to bring students back to campus from September.


Part of the problem is that Covid-19 really hasn’t gone away – and the flare-up in cases late last week in both Victoria, Australia and New Zealand should cause us to take notice.

In Victoria, Premier Daniel Andrews said that they’d found people gathering in large numbers – everybody at their home or a close friend’s home – even though they had been told not to. They had people with symptoms who didn’t tell their household and others who went to work. There were stories of families that had given it to each other and had then transmitted the virus to other households. “We can’t pretend that it is over. It is not”.

In New Zealand, a quarantining facility had held a wedding in the same ballroom where isolating returnees had walked for exercise. Another had convened a children’s birthday party. Two women who had arrived from the UK on 6 June had been allowed out of managed quarantine early to visit a dying parent, and drove 400 miles to visit their family – but secretly met up with friends on the way. Lockdown measures are tightening up again.

So here’s another question. Is the sector’s working assumption that in September the virus won’t spread quickly among students? Or is it that it will, but that students are low risk? Or is that it might, but there’s only so much universities can do?

We ask these questions not to be difficult, but because we’re interested in the difference between what we might call a Covid-19 safe campus, and a Covid-19 safe community – and obviously it strikes us that the former is much easier to achieve than the latter.

Community of course can mean many things with differing responsibilities and assumptions of influence and control. We’ve lost count over the years of the times when the press and/or government treat students as “in loco parentis” and universities as hermetically sealed bubbles, where all risk is manageable by a vice chancellor.

Here’s what universities say they are doing in the autumn, with data from Studentcrowd. You’ll notice a pattern.


(Clicking on a provider on the map will show you information on detailed plans for September/October, alongside a graph of the UK/international student split and details of the kinds of accommodation in which students are likely to live)

There is a temptation and a tendency to think about and discuss universities’ direct provision – teaching, facilities, libraries, toilets and so on – and to frame wider questions as shared responsibilities to avoid having to know the answers. The UUK statement is all about what universities will provide, organise or do themselves. But you can’t on the one hand issue glossy PDFs discussing the positive economic impact of student migration to towns and cities, and then wash your hands of any negative health impact. That won’t (hand) wash.

Student communities interact with others – staff on campus, and local residents off it. If there is a second peak, the sector will want to avoid students and universities getting lots of blame – and presumably will also want to actually avoid inadvertently and partially causing a peak or outbreak as part of our civic responsibilities.

In other words, when we’re used to not being clear at all, we’ll want to be really clear about responsibilities – institutional, personal, local government, landlords and so on. And that’s much harder as the lockdown eases than when it was imposed.

Track and trace

For example – it’s broadly assumed that to keep the virus under control and to avoid a second peak, one has to test, track, trace and isolate. That involves ramping up and improving testing capacity and capability. It may or may not involve an app. It definitely involves tracing staff who can help you reflect on and identify who you’ve interacted with. And right now, it also involves telling your household if you have symptoms, so they can self isolate for 14 days too.

On one level, at the time of writing it’s still not at all clear how that regime might work when the household is a student one. The government advice is sort of useful if you’re trying to define what a household is. But the question of enforcement and responsibility is left hanging – because our assumptions about relationships within a household don’t fit halls of residence or shared HMOs. Students with symptoms are going to think twice before they ruin their halls floor or housemates’ fortnight by fessing up about their symptoms. Who is responsible for defining a household – private landlords? Are they telling other students or the landlord? Are students going to be told by universities that they must inform others about their symptoms? And what do we do if they don’t?

From a university perspective, this is another headache on top of all the others. Plenty of universities a few weeks ago were assuming that components of their delivery might be delivered either online, or face to face. But if you’re having to heavily ration much of that face to face, what do you do if ten students are demanding their two hours’ face to face that week (or, in some cases, month) and ten are having to emergency self-isolate? It’s likely that a seminar where ten people are there in person, and ten people are online, is not a great (or indeed “quality”) experience – and would need (even) more tech than installed for lecture capture.

Lockdown locally

But there’s a whole other level to this to take account of. Back on 22 May, the government announced that it would grant £300 million to local authorities in England to develop and action plans to reduce the spread of the virus in their area. Each local authority, said the announcement, is getting funding to develop “tailored outbreak control” plans, working with local NHS and other stakeholders to focus on identifying and containing potential outbreaks in places such as “workplaces, housing complexes, care homes and schools” – by the end of June.

Since the announcement, there’s been all sorts of confusion at local authority level on the sorts of legal powers they would have if they are forced to implement local coronavirus lockdowns. Local Directors of Public Health have also been pushing for person-level testing data to allow them to identify hotspots as part of a potential second peak.

They’re not hopeful. Public Health England has suggested that most actions needed to tackle individual local outbreaks will be taken through “existing local mechanisms, and largely by agreement and consent”. That’s code for “oh when it comes to students we’ll ask the university to sort it”. Is data on infections really going to flow freely between universities and local authorities? And are universities going to just accept a local public health director ordering a shutdown?

There’s frustration among that group of Directors of Public Health at the lack of direction on these plans from central government. The closest thing to clarity is this collaboration document from the Association of Directors of Public Health, the Faculty of Public Health, the Local Government Association, Public Health England, the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and the UK Chief Environmental Health Officers. What’s remarkable is how similar it is to the sorts of things we’ve seen in higher education – high-level principles, whole system approaches, underpinned by partnership working, and so on.

What it doesn’t do – perhaps inevitably – is get into what you do if there’s an outbreak among students. They may sit far apart in lecture theatres, but with the clubs shut and the pubs operating outdoors, they’ll be mixing. As Laurence Steinberg points out here – most types of risky behaviour peak during the late teens and early 20s, and interventions designed to reduce risk-taking in this age group have an underwhelming track record. Couple that with the fact that the risks from Covid-19 to under 25s are genuinely, actually very slim – and an outbreak seems likely.

Transmission ramp

You’ve got to ask what you’re doing to prevent an outbreak. Are we banning students going around each other’s houses? If there are lots of voluntary suggestions being thrown out nationally, are university rules going to be tougher? If there are two universities in a city, are we ensuring the rules are the same? Are student clubs and societies banned from organising social events that don’t conform to social distancing? Are they training them how to do that? And what if they don’t comply?

The question then is what you do when the inevitable happens. These minutes from Oxford council consider what might be done by the Director of Public Health in three outbreak scenarios – a specific site or work location, a specific geographic location, and a specific community that mixes a lot (“e.g faith group, minority group, university students etc”). Students are in quite a prominent position on that Venn diagram of mixing.

So what do you do? Do you shut down the university campus, or a part thereof? Do you shut down the road, block, building or postcode where they live? Or do you lock down that academic programme? Or the cohort? Or all of those things? Who will make those calls? How will they balance an allegation that they are over-reacting (and harming freedoms), or under-reacting (and putting people at risk)? And who will enforce these lockdowns once they’re decided upon?

Then imagine a big PBSA block in a city full of international students is locked down by a local director of public health. That could get very unpleasant with some locals, very quickly.

And is there confidence that local directors of public health – who work for the local authority and all that implies in terms of local accountabilities and loyalties – understand what universities can, and more importantly can’t do, in this student conduct space? Put another way – given students are already scapegoated for all sorts of issues, if councils are under pressure from locals, how do we think multiple incidents like this or this or this are going to pan out?

And imagine what students will do at night, in fields – it could well be a flashback to 1990 or three weeks ago.

Living in a box

To illustrate the scale and depth of the problem we grabbed some data from the government. This involves a new dataset for us and we’re pretty excited about it. The Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) publishes a summary of Council Tax exemptions each year – including category M (halls of residence either owned or nominated by an educational provider) and category N (households where everyone is in full-time education). It’s not exact but you could read M as a proxy for PBSA and N as a proxy for your traditional student HMO. We’ve plotted these, plus the number of students studying in the area (from HESA) against the Covid-19 death rate for May 2020.

[Full screen]

This graph is all of England outside of London – you’ll note a few points of interest. First up, some local authority areas (probably the smallest unit of administrative space that could be locked down) have a lot of students living there – looking at N exemptions, in particular, you can see Leeds, Liverpool, Nottingham, Birmingham, Leicester as student heavy areas around the middle of the national Covid-19 trend. There are also some oddities – Exeter is (and always has been) a Covid-19 cold spot, suggesting either those red trousers are effective protection against infection or that there are some universities that will be particularly attractive to nervous applicants in 2020.

But when we move to London (at great expense) we see something else.

[Full screen]

Note the lack of correlation between the number of students studying in a borough and the number likely to be living there. Crucially, students are exposed to the community where they live and in transit to where they study. Tower Hamlets has a load of students living there, but other places have a lot more learning there. Hackney has no providers at all, but a lot of halls. This is likely also true in other places – Bristol probably has students living in Somerset, South Gloucestershire, Bath… and maybe even some still in Newport. That’s a lot of potential spreading.

What would you do if the area a student lives in is locked down, but not the area where a student studies? Or vice versa? What would you do if an intervening area that a student travels through between home and study is locked down? How would you balance the needs of students, local residents, and a professional body or Tier 4 visa that requires a certain level of participation?

Net negatives

Generally, as the lockdown eases, it is clear that the experience of schools, colleges and other countries will help us understand the how and what of lockdown easing. Retail’s lessons will help, as will pubs working out how to do things. If you haven’t already, for example, get your orders for marquees and gazebos in now – because you can bet there will be a global shortage once the weather turns.

And in wider society, some of the inconsistencies generally will iron out as the flakes in the snowdome of the new normal start to settle.

But there are aspects of what we do that hasn’t been tested. No one anywhere has tested a secondary school, college or university system at full pelt. No-one has (or will) pour young people back into towns and cities at the rate that we will in the Autumn.

And the reality is that universities simultaneously involve much much more social mixing than colleges or schools, and are environments that can exert much much less control over individuals’ behaviour and movements than colleges, schools, workplaces or family homes.

There are important calculations around safety on the difference between 2m and 1m, cleaning, screens etc. and the volume of deliverable face to face teaching. But for higher education, the sector will also have to think about the social mixing of the communities it forms by inviting people to come and live together on a campus or in a city.

We have to understand, set expectations around and think about how we might influence and ameliorate the experience of being a student, not just the student learning experience. Disabled students and others having to shield can’t be forgotten and, neither can the risk to comparatively older staff. And it can’t be assumed the interaction (and infection) between students and the community will somehow not be a problem laid at the door of universities.

Put another way – if being really careful about ordering hand gel is negated in risk/infection terms by a lack of a plan on rules on social activity, that’ll be a net negative – and it’s one universities won’t be forgiven for. Even if they did manufacture the gel.

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