From a glance at the morning headlines, you could be excused for thinking that universities are now “plague villages”, where students have been locked into rooms indefinitely at the behest of greedy vice chancellors.

This is, of course, not the case.

A number of concerning things are happening, and it is important to understand what is going on and why.

Are universities dangerously infectious places?

Because of the way university study works in the UK, large numbers of people have traveled from all over the UK (and beyond) to study and live on or near university campuses. Some of these people would already have been asymptomatic carriers of the Covid-19 virus. As students mixed, particularly in halls of residence and in settings (eg parties) where social distancing and Covid-19 safety measures have not been consistent, these asymptomatic carriers have inadvertently infected others who have developed symptoms.

Had students remained at home, it is possible that many would have become infected (via everyday life activities, including socialising) in similar ways. Many young people who are not attending university have also become infected. We don’t yet know precisely what the balance is – it feels likely that halls of residence are good places to meet new (and possibly infected) people, but it is also likely that mitigations and social distancing measures on campus are better than in other places. We can’t know until we get more data (universities – please share your data!).

There are spikes of cases in and around universities because of the large number of young people in those areas, and because of the way these young people are mixing in these places from many areas of the UK and beyond. For this reason – to protect other students and the wider community – it is important to follow guidelines and self-isolate where required.

Though what we know about Covid-19 is limited, and by their nature viruses are likely to mutate, our best current understanding is:

  • In this wave, healthy people in their late teens and early twenties are particularly likely to become infected.
  • However healthy members of this age group also currently appear less likely to experience serious health problems that result in hospitalisations or worse.

It is important to remember that healthy young people, though at less risk themselves, are able to pass the infection along to vulnerable people and/or those in older age groups – who are more likely to face serious health problems from the virus.

It is generally considered that the amount of exposure to Covid-19 is linked to the severity of health problems that may arise – although there is not complete evidence for this yet. This is why we use masks and other physical barriers.

Why are students being locked into halls of residence?

As with everyone in the UK, a student who may be at risk of infecting others with Covid-19 is required to self-isolate. This includes people who have:

  • Tested positive for Covid-19
  • Been in close contact with someone who has tested positive with Covid-19
  • Experienced Covid-19 symptoms and is awaiting a test
  • Live in a household with someone who has tested positive or has symptoms and is awaiting a test.

For a positive test or symptoms, self-isolation for 10 days is required. For those living in the same household, 14 days isolation is required. Though it is expected most people will do the right thing, there are fines for those who do not.

It was the intention in most cases that a household within a hall of residence could be narrowly defined, to include a single flat or corridor – wherever students share a kitchen is the usual example. For household self-isolation, it should be these units that are isolated. However, in some cases the boundaries between households have not been clear (different people have a different understanding of what constitutes the household) or have not been respected (larger groups have mixed regularly) – the local Health Protection Team makes this call. It is these cases that have seen the isolation of large halls of residence.

In Scotland, all students have been asked to stay away from pubs and other hospitality settings over the weekend 25-27 September. This is not the same as isolation, as students are not confined to their rooms in residences.

In some regions of England and Wales, local restrictions may mean some hospitality settings are closed – again this does not mean that students are confined to their rooms – and in some cases house parties are not permitted.

I am assuming throughout these answers that current problems with testing – low availability, low accuracy, poor tracking and tracing of contacts – remain. Had better testing, tracking, and tracing of Covid-19 contacts been available, it would be possible to be much more nuanced about self-isolation if we had better tests – quicker, more accurate, and easier to access – and better track and trace.

What should universities do if students need to isolate?

There is government guidance on this. It says

Institutions and building managers of private halls will need to design procedures with their staff to ensure that self-isolating students can receive the food and medicines they need for the duration of their isolation. This is especially important for disabled students.”

This has been interpreted differently in different places. The majority of universities and colleges are moving towards providing food and supplies to students in isolation, though some are ensuring that students have access to sources of food (eg via commercial food delivery services).

There is also guidance on supporting student mental health during isolation, and the guidance is clear that evictions are not permitted due to isolation.

As with the self-isolation guidance, it is assumed that the majority of people (from providers, hall management, and the students themselves) will do the right thing. Enforcement should be a last resort, and should only happen where there have been repeated breaches of self isolation.

Will students be stuck in halls over Christmas?

It is very unlikely, but we don’t know for certain. On one level it makes sense to support scared and lonely students in returning home (ideally now if they want to, to be honest, rather than at Christmas). But counter to this, a repeat of the mass migration at the start of term would serve to spread the virus further. And, against that, keeping students in halls has huge mental health implications – halls are designed (really) to sleep and work in, not to live in. As you read through this guide you’ll come across a number of places where decisions are made on understanding relative levels of risk and benefit; this is one of them.

It should be noted that not all groups of students are willing or able to return home, and any decision needs to bear the needs of these groups in mind.

Why are some providers still offering face-to-face teaching?

The teaching areas of the campus itself are relatively easy places to enforce social distancing and other Covid-19 safety requirements – for example mask and visor wearing can be monitored, one-way systems can be deployed, hand sanitizer provided, and social distancing can be supported with the use of furniture and floor markings.

Though it is very difficult to identify a particular source of an infection, most outbreaks around universities have not been linked to on campus activity, but to accommodation and to social activity. It is counter-intuitive, but it is possible to argue that teaching on campus is one of the safest things students can be doing right now (not least because it stops them doing, other – less safe – things.

That said, the idea of coming to campus to work at the moment generates anxiety for staff and students – and managing this anxiety may mean moving teaching online may be what needs to happen. The downside of this is that student mental health may suffer without safe and regular interaction with others – and there has been some evidence that students learn less effectively online than in person.

As with many things at the moment, it is a matter of understanding and balancing different risks.

Why did students return to campus anyway?

Many people in and around the sector have been calling since March for this autumn term to be delayed, or to be offered online only. This includes many Wonkhe contributors, and you can read what they said on the site.

Though it now increasingly looks as if these people might have been right, it is important to understand the other views that were around at the time these decisions were made.

The summer was characterised by a gradual removal of restrictions placed on life in the UK in the spring. Non-essential shops and hospitality venues re-opened, pupils returned to school, and adults were being encouraged to return to the office. The widespread use of masks (particularly) and safe social distancing, a drop in hospitalisations, and greater understanding of how serious cases of the virus could be treated all contributed to this,

Specifically in the higher education sector, there was a general expectation that students would experience some in-person teaching in the autumn term. This appeared to be in line with the other restrictions being eased. On top of this, the sector experienced a number of particular pressures that made in person teaching more likely to happen than not.

Is it just financial greed?

The way the government at Westminster dealt with universities over the summer is key to many decisions. Like other sectors of the economy, universities sought bailouts to manage losses of income through Covid-19 in order to maintain staffing levels. Unlike other areas of the economy (retail, manufacturing) this was to forestall an anticipated loss of income rather than a current crisis:

  • The loss of income from student fees – as new students either did not apply, did not accept places, did not enroll, or did not remain at university long enough for fees to be paid this autumn.
  • The knock on effect of low student numbers on accommodation and campus services income.
  • A particular loss of fee income from international students, who pay substantially more than home undergraduates – with some of this income used to cross-subsidise research activity.
  • A loss of research income from charities and commercial partners

For those industries facing an immediate crisis of income, the government offered loans and the furlough scheme. Universities had access to these schemes, but they were not well suited to the particular circumstances of the sector. Other than a very small allocation linked to international student income, universities did not receive a bailout. They did receive a re-profiling of fee income towards the start of term, but this is not new money and simply reduces expected income next term by the same amount.

This made it clear that universities were being asked to rely on recruitment as normal to cover their operating costs. As even a small amount of in person learning was considered to be more attractive to applicants than purely online learning as soon as one university began to promise in person provision, others followed.

As it happens, universities recruited very well this year. The A level results fiasco and the consequent removal of the interim student numbers cap created to avoid this exact issue means that some providers have recruited very well indeed, where others have not. But the problems still remain:

  • Many international students have not paid fees yet. There is an expectation they would wait until the last possible moment to do so.
  • Some home students have not arrived at, or returned to, university. We do not know how many.
  • Some students will not enroll, or will not remain on their course long enough (around 14 days) to become liable for fees – so no funds will arrive on their behalf from the Student Loans Company. We don’t know how many.

University recruitment for 2020-21, and thus university income for that year, is still very much an open question.

But don’t universities have loads of money? What about all the money we pay vice chancellors, and all those new buildings?

Universities are large businesses – many are of comparable size to FTSE250 companies, and have a comparable exposure to variable marketised income. It is possible to argue that – on this basis – VCs are actually underpaid (not that this is an argument I would go along with!), but the lingering perception that universities are within the public sector mean that the majority would argue they are overpaid.

High pay is a hugely emotive topic, but in terms of university spending the pay of the VC is very much a drop in the bucket. Many VCs have taken voluntary pay cuts over the summer, though these are largely symbolic. The majority of university spending is on staff salaries and pensions.

Campus improvements are paid for with capital, whereas salaries and pensions are met by recurrent income every year. Most universities borrow capital to pay for campus improvements. Some universities have reserves – these are not at all like money in a savings account, these are investments and assets that provide a steady stream of income, but could be liquidised to provide emergency capital if needed. It need hardly be added that the best time to liquidise these assets and investments is not during a global economic downturn.

Because of the way the funding system works, universities do not know how much income they will receive each year until student numbers are confirmed. This year it is likely that problems caused by low student income will become apparent in Spring 2021.

Shouldn’t students pay less for online or blended learning?

The ridiculous way that our funding system works is a problem here. Firstly, we should be clear that students do not pay fees – graduates do, and under the current system most graduates do not pay back all of their loans before they are written off. The £9,250 “sticker price” is nominally related to the average cost of provision (if anything, analysis of university finance data (TRAC(T)) would put this on the low end) – with high-cost (usually lab based) provision attracting an additional grant from government.

It is counterintuitive, but a move to online provision does not cut the costs of provision. The same academic staff and support staff are employed, doing equivalent work. Lectures and seminars are delivered, support is provided via calls and emails, resources are used. Lowering fees would have symbolic value, but would not affect the amount that most graduates will pay, and would worsen the student experience as staff were lost and departments were closed.

Any reduction would need to be done centrally for the whole sector, and would need to be accompanied by support for the sector in order that students can continue to be taught to a high standard during and after the current emergency.

What about accommodation income?

The majority of first years live in halls of residence owned, managed, or nominated by their universities – for other years the overwhelming majority are in other rented accommodation, usually houses in multiple occupation (HMOs). Direct university income from accommodation is, in most cases, not a large component of overall income.

Of course, most places that students might live require rent to be paid – to landlords, lettings agencies, or halls of residence owners. These latter groups may make a large part of their income from rent for student accommodation. The government has introduced some measures to support landlords (such as mortgage relief) and agencies (the measures available to all businesses) during the pandemic.

The student accommodation market has become overheated in recent years. Many companies have borrowed heavily to build shiny new private halls of residence. The buy-to-let market in university towns has also expanded. In both these cases, income is now at risk, which means that there is a serious financial interest among these players to maintain “normal” patterns of rental. Again, students clearly should not be paying rent for premises it is not currently safe to live in, but current and future students will expect the ability to rent property during term-time in future.

What needs to happen next?

Decisions need to be made on a return to online teaching and on students returning home (particularly from halls of residence). Clearly a lot of students will be frightened by the current state of affairs, and they should be able to return home without punishment or detriment. It would be impossible to enforce a ban on students staying away from home – any attempt to try would be politically toxic.

Students should not be liable for accommodation they have booked for this term if they return home. As students may want to return to campus, and to their accommodation, in the new year there will need to be financial measures in place to ensure that accommodation will still be available, and this needs to happen centrally, from government.

A decision needs to be made on how universities will be supported in the event that large numbers of students either fail to enroll or leave shortly after enrollment. These understandable actions will detrimentally hit university income, leading to staff being laid off, course and departmental closures, and – in a few cases – an institution becoming non-viable. If government is serious about allowing students to benefit from the university place they have won, it needs to be serious about supporting universities.

If the government is not serious about supporting the current size of the sector long-term, it needs to open and up-front about this – in particular with those students who have just registered on courses that may no longer exist or may be delivered with vastly depleted resources.

But this is not the time for blame. Nor is it the time to rehearse old arguments about the sector, how it is funded, and how students access it – the time for these questions will come. Everyone – politicians, university leaders, students, academics, administrators, parents, commentators – needs to be focused on supporting the immediate problems that we face. The reckoning will come later.

One response to “What is happening at universities right now, and why?

  1. One other point which is slightly lost in the ‘X universities have cases’ sensationalism/blame game is that universities never closed. While most students returned home from campus (in campus based universities) not all did so, other students arrived/moved around in their university town/city over the summer, and commuter students remained students in the vicinty of the university. Some of these students will have had Covid; therefore most if not all universities will have had students with covid. There are some universities with new outbreaks (linked to students arriving en masse from all over the country, as indicated in the article), but other universities will simply have continued to record some cases amongst their staff and students (in line with the rising infection numbers across the general population). The conflation of these two things in some of the more sensationalist reporting isn’t really helping with the clarity (or the willingness to blame students for something which is resolutely not their fault).

    The escalation of the ‘Christmas student lockdown’ story does feel a bit like the War episode of The Day Today.

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