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Why do we expect universities to provide sunshine indoors?

Who is responsible for students during a pandemic? Jim Dickinson warns against the tendency to wag the finger at universities.
This article is more than 3 years old

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

“Where students are having to self-isolate, I want to emphasise just how important it is that universities take seriously their duty of care – supporting students’ physical needs, but also their mental health and wellbeing”, said Michelle Donelan at the weekend. “This is a message that I have sent directly to all universities.”

But what is universities’ duty of care in this scenario?

The other day, subscribers to our essential Wonkhe Daily service will have noted that Alberto Costa, the Conservative MP for South Leicestershire, posed a written question in Parliament to the Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson.

He asked what plans the Department for Education (DfE) has to work with the university sector to introduce free sanitary products on campuses. DfE minister Vicky Ford answered on behalf of the department, explaining that earlier this year the department launched a new scheme which makes free period products available for state-funded primary schools, secondary schools and colleges in England.

But what about universities?

Higher education providers such as universities are autonomous bodies, independent from the government. It is for each individual provider to make their own decisions about how best to support their students. However, many providers may choose to provide certain services to support inclusion.

Well that’s alright then. Over to you, vice chancellors.

You’re on your own

Two things stand out here. The first is the idea that because universities are autonomous, the government can absolve itself from funding them – as if the minor differences in the legal governance frameworks surrounding say FE colleges or academy trusts should dictate whether someone in education needs help with sanitary products.

But the other is this. I have no idea why Costa has this interest in sanitary products, but what I do know is that in March, he was one of 132 MPs that signed a parliamentary petition calling on the NHS to provide free sanitary products for anyone who asks for them. The question, therefore, is why did Costa aim the question at DfE? And why did DfE answer it?

These twin tactics, of “othering” students away from the rest of society and making their entire lives the exclusive responsibility of universities – and then repeatedly deploying university autonomy as an excuse for not funding things – are in constant use, and there appears to be no limit to the uses to which tuition fees may be put.

Here are just a few recent examples:

  • Earlier this month Richard Holden (Conservative, North West Durham) asked what additional funds are being made available for schools, childcare facilities and universities for deep cleaning after cases of Covid-19. Schools minister Nick Gibb said the government was providing additional funding to schools on top of existing budgets, but that for universities “we have updated our guidance”.
  • Richard Thomson (Scottish National Party) asked what discussions were being held on the potential merits of extending the duration of the graduate work visa. Did the Home Office answer? No, Michelle Donelan took it on.
  • Sarah Owen (Labour, Luton North) asked what discussions DfE had had with universities running halls and private providers of student accommodation. Instead of referring the question to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG), a DfE minister replied – and basically stressed that everyone is autonomous.
  • Earlier in the pandemic, Labour Shadow HE Minister Emma Hardy asked what DfE was doing to enable students that are unable to (a) work and (b) be furloughed to claim universal credit during the pandemic. Michelle Donelan referred her to university hardship funds.

It happens almost every day, on almost every issue. Voter registration among students isn’t the Cabinet Office, it’s universities and OfS under HERA. The Prevent duty somehow isn’t the Home Office, it’s DfE and OfS. Student mental health escapes the concern (and the budgets) of ministers in the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), neither the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) nor its Charity Commission ever think about universities as charities, and the Department for Work & Pensions (DWP) thinks students are someone else’s problem too.

Northern lights

When I took a merry band of student reps on a trip around the Baltics and Finland in January, we were struck at the level of concern expressed to us by the Fins at the prospect of students “falling between two stools”, considered neither as children worthy of state protection nor full adult citizens of wider services and with wider rights. There a student NHS combines some of the funding we place into the NHS and universities respectively.

Two years before on a similar trip to the Nordics, we were struck by similar discussions in Norway, where the idea that universities run things like welfare, careers or counselling was an anathema. “They would be no good at it”, said one student rep, “so we run those services, regionally, separately to the universities”. Another laughed and said “why would universities know how to do all of that”. Another shook their head and said “too many conflicts of interest”.

I raise all of this partly because I’ve been thinking a lot about the mess of self-isolation and quarantining in student accommodation in recent weeks – both in terms of practical application and preparedness, epidemiological efficacy and design, and the wider question of civil rights and liberties, especially in cases of long confinement or segregation from society.

Specifically, having fallen off my chair at the idea that there are educational benefits to it, I’ve been reflecting on the way in which responsibility for designing and enforcing self-isolation and quarantining has subtly been allocated to universities.

The state we’re in

Guidance on when and how human rights can be restricted to prevent the spread of infectious disease is found in something called the Siracusa Principles, developed by the Siracusa International Institute for Criminal Justice and Human Rights and adopted by the UN Economic and Social Council in 1984.

The principles state that restrictions on rights should meet basic standards of legality, evidence-based necessity, proportionality, and gradualism. Limitations on rights (such as quarantine) must be “strictly necessary”, meaning that they must be the least restrictive means required for achieving the purpose of the limitation, be provided for and carried out in accordance with the law, be neither arbitrary nor discriminatory, and only limit rights that are within the jurisdiction of the state seeking to impose the limitation.

When a quarantine is imposed, public health ethics specify that all restrictive actions must be well-supported by data and scientific evidence, all the information must be made available to the public, and all actions must be explained clearly to those whose rights are restricted and to the public.

And the state is ethically obligated to offer certain guarantees. Infected people will not be threatened or abused. Basic needs such as food, water, medical care, and preventive care will be provided. Communication with essential networks will be permitted. Constraints on freedom will be applied equally, regardless of social considerations. And those in there will be compensated fairly for economic and material losses, including salary.

I am not at all convinced that students in self-isolation in halls of residence right now – or indeed in private halls or HMOs – would agree that we’ve been abiding by the Siracusa Principles. In many cases the decisions look arbitrary, the preparations look shaky, the restrictions look discriminatory and the reliefs don’t look scalable. But I don’t know who the “state” is that they complain to. And that does matter in a democratic society, when universities are the educators.

Universities will privately mutter that everyone else in society on a low income now gets £500 to self-isolate, but students have to approach their hardship fund. They’ll whisper that the PM thinks students are children at boarding school and so do local public health officials, all of whom can just “order” a building into isolation at the drop of a hat. They’ll signal that there could be major mental health implications from the fall out of being in quarantine for a term, but that all the government is doing for students is a version of nightline that’s not staffed by students. But they rarely say it out loud.

High voltage

Now I know all too well the dangers of arguing against universities being asked to take responsibility. I’ve spent a decade (on this site) criticising those in power in universities who would argue that it’s society’s fault that their intakes are socially exclusive, that it’s the police’s fault that there is sexual assault and racial harassment and that it’s the NHS’s fault that so many of their students are suffering with mental health issues. There is real danger in creating a sense that it’s not in the gift of universities to diversify their intake, eradicate harassment and assault and reduce the mental harm from the educational activities and environments they arrange.

And I know all too well how this happens. It’s a type of dependency. You need the money. You don’t want to rock the boat. You’ve been getting stick from the press and ministers and you figure that if you’re helpful, they’ll recognise it and reward you. So well-meaning university vice chancellors on well-meaning task forces always say yes, we can help, we can do that, leave it with us. You just take it. Even when it involves taking even more students than usual in the middle of a pandemic so that ministers are spared the blushes of their own examnishambles.

Except as a result, on every issue from voter registration to the implications of mass self-isolation, no-one’s really sure where the responsibility boundaries lie, and no-one’s really sure what the standards are – so when something can’t be done, there’s always an excuse, there’s never enough money and students can’t complain – because we’re all just doing our best, OK? We’re not the bad guys, we’re the knights. Until it all fades away and the press moves on and we’re the knaves again.

Every issue descends into this type of halfway house – where the sector issues mood music about supporting students in self-isolation where the music can’t even be heard by those in private halls, let alone those in HMOs or those that commute. Every campus is Covid secure. Every student is back as usual. Every single course in the country is rewritten for high-quality online delivery without a single extra penny to do it with. Fix the digital divide while you’re at it, manufacture your own hand sanitiser, staff our NHS with students and resort to your own test and trace system. Sure! We can do that!

Except when we can’t. Blimey! Lay off! We’re doing our best, and we’ve not been given any extra money to do it with!

It’s how ministers get away with re-spending £256m that has already been allocated for disadvantaged students on everything from “hardship funding for students who have to isolate”, to the “purchase of IT equipment”, “mental health support” and support for postgraduate students – and then when MPs ask about those things, it’s always universities’ fault.

It all results in this – where the responsibility for supporting students isn’t that of the local council, or the DfE, or the DWP, or the NHS. It’s other students’ tuition fees:

We need to draw the line somewhere, surely?

2 responses to “Why do we expect universities to provide sunshine indoors?

  1. I think this is a really good and really important piece. It has always baffled me particularly about mental health services, where the assumption seems to be that the NHS just doesn’t have to worry itself about you if you’re a student unless you’re in acute crisis. The answer given to this is that the NHS doesn’t bother itself about anyone unless they’re in acute crisis but universities trying (and often failing) to plug that gap seems to me to just perpetuate and mask the very real problem here – and of course it does nothing for young people who don’t go to university, who are just expected to cope with the completely inadequate service.

  2. I found this really interesting. It’s something I experienced last year when I was struggling with my relationship with food. I don’t live at uni on campus or anything, I live several miles away with my parents, so I went to see my GP. I was told I “fall in-between services” and to try my uni which was completely unhelpful, they probably made things worse rather than better. I don’t really understand how I have access to different (worse) services than my boyfriend who’s the same age but works full time would. It was especially obvious during further student restrictions in Scotland, my sister or boyfriend could go to the pub or a restaurant with anyone they knew except me!

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