Michelle Donelan made a commendable attempt at clarity in specifying exactly which students should – in the opinion of DfE – be on campus in the early weeks of this term.
Her use of the standardised HeCOS vocabulary was marred only by the omission of the code numbers (pretty handy when you are going to arbitrarily change the name text), and the fact that in terms of specifying chunks of university provision the Common Academic Hierarchy (CAH) would have made a lot more sense. And the fact that she specified orthopaedics, paediatrics, and rehabilitation studies twice each.
If we’re going to get nit-picky, I should maybe note that had anyone at DfE bothered to ring the QAA they would have been able to quickly identify which subject areas may be linked to professional, statutory, and regulatory bodies (nobody else even has an up-to-date list!) and then made a few calls to check which had practical assessments built into a specified schedule that cannot be altered or practical experience hour requirements that could only be fulfilled by students being on campus.
Guidance published alongside last night’s Prime Ministerial statement suggested that what appears to be the same group of subjects would still experience in person teaching throughout January – as of 5 January this has been confirmed by the Office for Students. Other students are encouraged to “stay where they are”.
I remain unconvinced that there are any students who need to be on campus during a terrifying third phase of a pandemic – no professional body would insist on it, no provider is demanding it, and – when the chips are down and words like “public health liability” are in use – no government should be either. As it stands there are rather a lot of these students, and I’m worried how many will slip through the cracks of a general move to online provision.
Subject means place
In specifying a list of subjects where provision should start in person during January, DfE is also specifying a list of places. Some very well known providers – London School of Economics, Loughborough – have nil or negligible students expected on campus purely by virtue of the subject mix on offer. In contrast, more than 6,500 students could be returning to King’s College London.
Here I’ve defaulted to looking at the full time undergraduate students DfE seems most inclined to think about, but you can look at other populations via the filter. The data is the latest publicly available (2018-19) – we should expect these numbers to be higher in most cases. And I’ve included data for the whole UK, though guidance on eligible courses is different – and less precise – outside of England
As the underlying data is based on JACS Principal Subject groups there’s some fuzziness inherent in converting from the HeCOS subjects specified. I’ve tagged principal subjects as “tranche one” where they are comprised mostly or entirely of subjects specified in Donelan letter. I’ve not included some of the stranger outliers – human biology is the only (C1) biology subject specified, applied social sciences sits alone in L0, and policing is the only law subject – we don’t have data at the required level of precision to see these.
I’ve put together a dashboard to offer an indication of the proportion of a providers provision that could be in tranche one – the bar at the right shows an overview, the smaller bars at the left lets you compare principal subject areas.
Each of these providers is based within a locality. And that locality has a rate of Covid cases. It’s fair to assume that bringing a large number of students into an area with a high prevailing Covid case rate is probably not a good idea (the same applies to students travelling from an area with a high prevailing Covid case rate – but as we’ve not had decent data on that all year I fear we are never going to get it now).
Here’s a plot of likely “tranche 1” student numbers (shown as the size of the provider marks) and prevailing case rates in a local district (LTLA) as the colour intensity. I’m not going to list them here, but you can plainly see a number of places with high Covid rates and a large number of “tranche 1” students.
(If you are wondering why Buckinghamshire is blank, there’s a rant at the end of this article).
I offer my usual caveats – this is based on available public data, and requires no great skill to bring together. Every provider, and each of the UK’s governments, should have a better or more specific version of this information.
It is clear that we shouldn’t see these specified subject areas as blanket requirement (or even permission) to bring students back on campus – preserving here the fiction that students will not travel to campus until told to. Universities and colleges should be making decisions based data like this to decide which students actually need to be encouraged back – at this stage the closer to zero that number gets, the better.
The Department for Education, in particular, needs to give providers the space to make these decisions – they should not be made based on the threat of an existential financial detriment or consumer-rights inflected language about quality. Fundamentally we need to be looking at student compensation from government, as Jim argued yesterday – a cash payment to struggling students makes it easier for providers to make the right and safe choice.
On 1 April 2020 four lower tier local authorities – Chiltern, Wycombe, South Bucks, Aylesbury Vale – merged into the existing Buckinghamshire County Council to become the Buckingham Council unitary authority. Despite this, Public Health England still reports Covid-19 case data for the previous authorities. As I’ve updated all of my map and shape files, I’m not about to roll them back just so PHE can pretend that keeping a time series back to March is in the public interest. I’ve written to PHE to ask what they are playing at.