As we all crawl on our hands and knees towards Easter wondering what’s to come afterwards, unusually Universities UK has gone public in its lobbying over what will be allowed.
It has urged the government not to ignore the needs of students when deciding how to further ease lockdown restrictions in England, arguing that ministers must not “take students’ resilience for granted”. It says universities should be able to offer in-person activity and catch-up support “as soon as possible after Easter”, and sets out for the press its case to have restrictions lifted on universities in time for what’s now called Step 2 – pencilled in for 12 April.
It points out that other areas of the economy – including shops classed by the government as non-essential – are set for a return to business in Step 2. But it says that “concerns are growing” that the next stage of student returns will instead be delayed until Step 3 (no earlier than 17 May) at the earliest.
That’s despite what it calls “exceptional campus safety records” following staggers in January and March, and what it says is “strong evidence” of the benefits that an early April return would bring to the mental health, wellbeing and development of those students who have had no in-person teaching or access to facilities this year.
There’s lots planned, apparently:
Universities have been preparing extensively for a final phase of student returns from 12 April, and a range of Covid-safe in-person activities are planned to give students the best possible experience for the remainder of the academic year.
These include blended teaching and learning, opportunities to use library, computing and studio spaces, on-campus sport, graduate support bootcamps, and creative use of outdoor space – in accordance with government guidance – to encourage group work and social interaction.
And Universities UK President Julia Buckingham sounds pretty angry:
University students have been extremely tolerant in the face of huge disruption and a radically different experience this year, and have willingly made sacrifices in the interests of public safety. But the government must not take their resilience for granted.
The government has said that decisions will be based on data, not dates. Universities have proven that the safety measures put in place – including regular asymptomatic testing, additional cleaning, support for self-isolating students and adherence to guidance on ventilation and face coverings – have enabled effective management of the virus on campuses, with minimal infection rates in face-to-face teaching settings and limited onward transmission to local communities.
Even the Russell Group has joined in, with CEO Tim Bradsaw appropriating the “forgotten” students call:
There are thousands of university students across the country on courses such as business, maths and languages who are still waiting to find when – or even if – they will be able to return to in-person teaching this year. Many feel they have been forgotten by Government and fear they will miss out on opportunities that their universities are currently only allowed to offer to students on practice-based courses.
We are particularly concerned about the impact on student mental health and that some students may not be able to take part in extra activities universities have planned for the rest of the year that would aim to boost employability, consolidate learning and help build networks that could be vital for their future success.
As you might expect, UCU is less convinced – General Secretary Jo Grady accuses UUK of “self-interest” having “lured” students to campus on the promise of a “relatively normal” campus experience, and says a mass return to campus would risk the safety of staff, students and the wider public:
University staff are burnt out from the chaotic and unsustainable demands which the sector has placed on them this year and we will not let universities sacrifice their well-being on the altar of short-term financial incentives.
UCU is calling for courses to be taught online until the end of the academic year wherever possible. It will be much safer to remain online until the start of the next academic year when many more people will have been vaccinated. Universities must work with us to protect staff and student safety. If our members feel their health and safety is being put at risk, then we will support them to protect themselves, including through balloting for industrial action where necessary.”
So what’s going on here? As we know, in England a shortlist of courses was drawn up centrally for a return to campus that got chopped back in the new year when the new Covid-19 variant took hold. Then the list was widened to include students on courses with practical components, although quite late in the term to make much of a difference, especially for international students not yet (back) in the UK. DfE has promised to review options for the timing of the return of all remaining students by the end of the Easter holidays – but has never specified a date.
On Tuesday iNews reported that sources involved in Whitehall discussions said the government was prioritising lifting restrictions on other sectors over getting students back on campus. On Wednesday DfE’s Higher Education Taskforce met – and we understand that a discussion on student hardship was shelved in favour of a discussion on reopening instead. Fair enough – it’s not as if the DfE hardship fund money is due to run out next Wednesday or anything.
So it’s safe to assume that an in-principle decision from government has now been confirmed – it’s Step 3 rather than Step 2 for the “rest” of students to “return” to campus, and that’s a decision notionally that’s about taking the overall infection “budget” and prioritising interventions like the reopening of non-essential retail over on-campus activity that’s all but over for this group of students anyway.
What’s perhaps remarkable about it all is how bizarre the notes for journalists are from the key players.
The Russell Group says that it is “not aware” of any major outbreaks on university campuses in 2021 despite the majority of students now living in their term-time accommodation. That assertion is a stretch given what’s been going on in Dundee and St Andrews over the past couple of weeks, and given it was those places that were among the canaries in the coalmine at the start of the academic year, the RG will be hoping that line doesn’t come back to haunt it over Easter.
UUK points out that a recent Sutton Trust report on Covid-19 and the university experience showed that participation in extra-curricular activities this academic year is substantially down on normal – 39 per cent of students reported taking part in student societies or sport in the autumn term, and this has fallen further since Christmas to just 30 per cent. But unless we’re talking about sport, neither “Step 2” nor “Step 3” as legally drafted appear to offer any realistic prospect of substantial in-person extra-curricular activities anyway – particularly if it’s raining.
To demonstrate its safety chops, the Russell Group points out that in the latest week of published data on LFD testing in England (4-10 March), 91,934 tests were conducted in higher education settings and just 102 positive test results were returned (0.1%). But it also says that the “majority of students [are] now living in their term-time accommodation”. If that’s true, 90,000 tests for an England student population of 2m raises massive alarm bells. Even if (and it’s a massive, gigantic if) all 90k tests were students living in university halls getting their twice weekly test, that’s still only a participation rate of about one in ten.
Universities UK argues that data published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reveals that almost two-thirds of students have experienced a decline in their mental health this academic year (it’s actually 71 per cent for those 20 and under), and that students’ life satisfaction during the pandemic remains far below the national adult average. But it’s not at all clear that a return to campus for a couple of hours of socially distanced, hazmat-suited in-person teaching being delivered by someone trying to simultaneously film it for isolating students not in the room, and international students not in the UK, is the bang up wellbeing tonic that UUK thinks it is.
Oddly, there’s no mention of rent or international students in the releases. There’s a number of concerns around the sector that international students not yet in the UK may not appear with payment (ideally not in cash) for next term’s rent and tuition fees. And universities that did as they were told by ministers and rebated rent for those students not formally “invited” to return to campus are hoping that something can be salvaged that can save the final quarter’s residences revenue.
The range of promises made in the releases is also interesting. It may well be that some universities are preparing to offer access to study spaces, studios, sports facilities, support and catch-up programmes, library space, computer rooms, studio spaces, group work and social interaction – but not all will be, and the danger is that this both repeats UUK’s over-promising from last June, and reinforces in the eyes of students what’s been lost that they were promised.
Speaking on a HEPI value for money webinar yesterday, University of Gloucestershire VC and former DfE director Stephen Marston summed up the sector position when he said:
In respect of the tuition fee we are still delivering tuition – there is teaching, there is support for learning, we can help you meet all of your learning outcomes for your course, we can help you qualify, [and] we can help you graduate. So you are still getting as students everything that your tuition fee was meant to pay for.”
Setting aside the debate about whether that’s right legally, it’s also not what universities project nor what students understand. So on the assumption that there is tangible and meaningful value in both physical campus facilities and activities that students undertake that aren’t teaching and assessment – so much so that both UUK and the RG are out in public lobbying to reestablish access to them – won’t that remind students that the “value” proposition has changed so radically this year that someone, somewhere, needs to set that right financially?
Cynics (and plenty of students are in that camp by now) will conclude that the debate hasn’t got a lot to do with safety, or student experience, or mental health at all – and is more about rent and shoring up the defensive position on tuition fees. That’s certainly the UCU line. But the fact that that’s the impression given is a real shame – no doubt those issues are in the political economy mix, but there’s also no doubt that there’s a real passion around the sector around rebuilding the confidence of students over the summer as they crawl out from under the restrictions if they’re allowed to, and if the support is there.
But that’s a big if. If thousands of final year students are getting extensions, why aren’t they getting maintenance loan extensions? Why is it less than a week until DfE’s student hardship fund runs out and there’s no news on a replacement when the hospitality that funds students through university is still closed? Why is there no investment in activities and programmes that will address the educational activity that students have missed, and not even talk of ways to compensate them for the year they’ve endured? Why aren’t student accommodation providers in both universities and elsewhere getting financial assistance to deliver rent rebates?
What’s needed here is a bold, clever, data-driven coordinating response from a DfE that understands the issues and is prepared to invest in the solutions instead of fiddling around with culture wars. That the chances of it happening are less than zero will be a fittingly miserable end to this session of Parliament.