Autonomy now means whatever DfE wants it to mean

So Michelle Donelan’s line on the delayed return to campus is, as expected, not focused on the return to campus.

David Kernohan is an Associate Editor of Wonkhe

As she said several times during Daisy Cooper’s urgent question today there are risks around mass migration and the formation of new households. She was advised as much, by SAGE, back in the summer.

The advice

On 1 July, it was the SAGE position that there were risks inherent in:

The significant movement of around 1 million students across the country, with potential impact on the transmission of the virus, at the beginning and end of terms

These risks are two-fold – there is a risk to students themselves, where outbreaks may mean the kind of mass isolation that happened in October and where there may be other complications from a Covid-19 infection. And there is a risk to the wider population if these outbreaks cause the spread of the virus locally.

There has not been any serology evidence that infections spread from gown to town in October – there is certainly no statistical indication that this happened either in October or among friends and family in December.

On 11 February SAGE noted:

Evidence from genomic studies in a limited number of universities suggests that mitigation measures were successful in minimising transmission.

And (though noting that risks and patterns would be different in different setting and among different groups of the students:

the rate of Covid-19 infection rose among many HE student populations in October 2020 (moderate evidence, moderate data), with rates of infection subsequently reduced in November (high confidence).

If only Michelle Donelan could have been made aware of the risks and been able to act on this advice before the start of the autumn term.

The response

The restrictions on travel and household formation apply to all students, there is no attempt to imaging particular groups of students (part time or mature students, post graduate students) as experiencing the pandemic in a different way and thus having a difference in behavior.

But when we get to the finances of HE, DfE asserts that all students are different. Rather than a mass model of financial support and compensation (as seen in Northern Ireland) student circumstances are to be considered in isolation, with the support offered variable by provider, subject, student background, level, and all the rest. To take a national approach would be fairer, but would also cost DfE a lot of money – and I can hear the snorts of derision from Number 11 already.

Universities are – we are reminded – autonomous, so are directly and individually responsible for the experiences of students and compensating them appropriately. But universities are not autonomous when it comes to asking students to return to campus in order to get something closer to the higher education experience they were expecting. There the decision is made centrally.

Likewise, on matters of national importance like free speech or the type of offers made to applicants, universities are not autonomous. Policy is made centrally.

No wonder we are confused

So are universities autonomous? It’s a fundamental question, and one that has puzzled many over the years. What’s becoming clear is that the answer is variable – universities are autonomous when it suits the government, but not otherwise.

You’d think “autonomy” might mean that you would have the right to assess students on what you’d taught them rather than their grasp of formal grammar – Robert Halfon’s bizarre question on the seemingly unkillable University of Hull story, and Michelle Donelan’s answer suggests otherwise.

But universities are autonomous in dealing with the worst global pandemic in living memory. And every student has experienced the mental drain of online participation, the loneliness away from their friends, the financial pressure of rent for a room they are not permitted to use in a way that is so significantly different from their peers that it needs to be dealt with as a separate and discrete complaint – but every student apparently acts in the same way to spread the virus.

For the DfE autonomy isn’t a principle – it’s an insurance policy.

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