DfE guidance on the “new national restrictions”

How should higher education in England approach the latest lockdown?

Guidance from the Department for Education on higher education in the “new national restrictions” has landed.

There’s not much that – having read Michelle Donelan’s recent correspondence and having a general understanding of wider national restrictions – you wouldn’t be able to guess at this stage. But let’s round it up anyway.

Stay at home

Like everyone, students are expected to stay where they are currently living during the next lockdown. This is dressed up as a treat so students can benefit from face-to-face teaching, but really it’s just the same Covid-safe rules as we’re all dealing with. There are very limited exemptions – you can leave home for education (handy for commuter students, that), work, exercise and recreation outdoors (but only with others in your household), medical appointments, to escape injury or harm (including mental health crises), to shop for essentials, and to care for others.

This is for the four planned weeks of lockdown in the first instance – we’re still waiting on the travelling home for Christmas stuff and at this stage we reckon that it is tied up with the fate of mass testing and operation moonshot.

Student and staff safety

There’s a lot of stuff about updating risk assessments, with the DfE handily leaving open the possibility of a provider deciding that despite a pandemic bad enough to close most of the rest of the country that getting students in for a 10.30 seminar on “post structuralist thought” is probably fine. As we noted from the Donelan letter DfE is hinting towards HE tier two, but is still very keen to say that “the government recognises the importance of face-to-face teaching”. There’s a recognition that extramural studies and placements might not work right now, but really this is all left up to providers.

Why? Well, government wants to keep its hands clean so it isn’t brought into any fee refund claims. If a provider is told to offer online only, that makes things the government’s fault – if it decides to do so on safety grounds, it’s the providers fault. Government would really like providers to pay fee refunds, not the Treasury. It’s one of the nastiest underpinning parts of the way universities are being dealt with – and I’m happy to call it out for what it is.

Face coverings

There’s almost a mask mandate. Face coverings should be worn where social distancing is difficult to maintain, and new is advice that they should be worn in all learning situations except where it would have an impact on learning and teaching. There’s a recognition that some people may be exempt from this, or may have other needs that providers should take account of. And let’s remember we still haven’t had updated guidance on people at risk.

Online and in person teaching

Same as above, but apparently worth saying twice. Providers should – using their skill and judgement – decide how to deliver teaching. But it should be face-to-face, and remember that the OfS are (somehow) watching you so don’t make teaching go all rubbish just for a laugh or something.

Socialising

Nope. As with the nation as a whole, you can hang out with your household (as usual judged to be a group that shares a kitchen or bathroom, not an entire block). Support bubbles involving a single adult can still visit each other, stay overnight, and hang out outdoors. Everybody else can exercise or visit outdoor places with one person from another household.

Top winter 2020 student hang outs are listed – parks, beaches, “countryside”, public gardens, allotments, and playgrounds. Just imagine you’re underage drinking again.

Catered halls

Most university catering should shut down apart from takeaways. Catered halls doing this might mean that students can’t eat (if the students have no place to prepare or eat food), so in those cases catering can continue.

Financial hardship

Providers may be able to help students in financial hardship (I wonder if this is that £256m again?), or students can contact the Student Loans Company to be reassessed – that last one isn’t actually true unless the income of your parents has changed.

Wellbeing support for students and staff

Lots of warm words about students staying in touch with support services, and with family and friends. And on “engaging with virtual activities arranged by their university and students’ union” – so Zoom quizzes are back, then. We get links to the OfS-funded StudentSpace and other external services.

Staff are pointed to guidance on safer workplaces – employers have responsibilities apparently.

Clinically extremely vulnerable people

Another reminder that this guidance is missing – not just for students but for the entire of England.

Support for students with symptoms or self-isolating

Very much the same as before. The suggestion is that HE providers are responsible for ensuring that all students are “safe and well looked after” during their self-isolation period, but there is only guidance on isolation for “residential educational settings” – providers’ own halls.

“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.”

Libraries and study spaces

These should remain open, which suggests that somebody at DfE thinks that students and staff are currently able to make reliable use of on campus study spaces. And remember – students must use the study spaces independently and must not gather in study spaces, unless as part of an in-person, scheduled seminar or tutorial.

Research

This is a new bit. If you’re a researcher or a research student and you can’t work from home, you are allowed to come in. If you’re gathering with others (for example as part of a focus group or similar methodology) this should be paused until the period of national restrictions has ended. “New national restrictions” doesn’t sound half as good as the “new normal”, does it?

Tuition fee refunds

As usual, this depends on “specific contractual arrangements” between the provider and student – you can complain to your provider and then the OIAHE.

International students

International students may decide to return home – thus missing all of this vital face-to-face learning – but need to follow advice and guidance, and especially not travel if they have symptoms or are isolating.

Sports facilities

Gyms and leisure facilities will be closed all over England. They’ll be closed in universities too. If you’re doing Sports Science or similar you might have access to exercise laboratories and such as part of your course, so you can use them as part of scheduled in-person learning hours.

Some team sports are allowed if they follow the national governing body guidance – and “elite” athletes can continue training.

Performing arts

You might remember a whole incongruous section on the performing arts in the September guidance which said you could look to designate specific areas (“creative spaces”) for students to “socially and creatively interact” beyond the usual teaching environment. Unsupervised common rooms for trumpet players to jam together in a socially distant well ventilated way sprung up across the sector.

Well, there’s another incongruous performing arts here. DfE recognises that performing arts courses are specifically difficult to carry out safely, but apparently some providers have found the magic formula to do so, so maybe others should consider this as well. What are the ways to teach drama, dance, and music safely? We’re not told. We’re pointed to general guidance on performing arts, and reminded to maintain social distancing, or similar steps.

Is that it?

Yes, that’s it. If anything is going on here, it’s that any lingering doubts that campuses might be usable for anything other than formal didactic teaching are gone. The legislation still makes exemptions of the “provision” of education and training, the giving and receiving of charitable services (ie almost anything the average university or SU does both teaching and non-teaching) and for support groups. But in DfE world, it’s just sitting at a desk and facing the front that counts. If you’ve got a free hour (or week) between seminars, better sit somewhere. On your own.

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