DfE issues revised guidance for higher education in England after Step 4

The good news is the Department for Education has issued a revision to the guidance for higher education in England, to apply from “Step 4” which is likely to kick in on July 19th.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

The bad news is that the new guidance doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know, fails to address the obvious big issues that remain about September, and is genuinely confusing in various places.

Just like every other time that DfE has issued guidance.

The themes appear to be “there’s no restrictions now”, “you can make your own decisions”, “still be careful though”, and “don’t make any decisions we wouldn’t like in pursuit of being careful”. In other words, there’s something in here that matches all of the takes on Step 4 that you’ve seen on Twitter today – which is less helpful than you’d imagine.

The topline message is as signalled on Monday – from Step 4 of the government’s Covid-19 roadmap, there will no longer be restrictions on the approach to teaching and learning in higher education providers as a result of Covid-19.

It also makes clear that:

There will be no requirement for social distancing or other measures within in person teaching. Providers will therefore be able to shape their courses without restrictions to face-to-face provision.

That said, providers should continue to conduct risk assessments for their particular circumstances, implement “sensible and proportionate control measures” which reduce risk to the lowest reasonably practicable level, and have in place contingency plans to deal with any identified positive cases of Covid-19 or outbreaks.

Outbreaks that might even have been caused by… the lack of restrictions!

What’s that? What if your staff and students think that things like mask wearing are “sensible and proportionate”? Hahahahahaha.

The “principles” section is at pains to remind us that higher education providers are autonomous institutions, and should identify and put in place appropriate plans based on their individual circumstances. You’re on your own.

It also reminds us that OfS says that providers should “communicate clearly” to students on what they can expect from planned teaching and learning that should include different scenarios – although it finesses the OfS guidance by saying that the scenarios should be “one based on the current circumstances”, and “one based on changes that would be made in response to changing health advice, so that [students] are able to make informed choices”.

“Informed” is doing a lot of work there.

“It is important that obligations under consumer protection law continue to be met”, it continues – which does of course mean that for returners, providers have a duty to provide the material provision outlined in the pre-contract information (which includes how it was to be delivered). Without any legal restrictions to fall back on in any “force majeure” clause, that does feel like shifting some teaching to “online only” within a “blended” mix just got much harder.

Nevertheless, a mere handful of sentences later, providers are told to “continue to make efforts to reduce the risk of transmission” where possible. Given that the main way in which providers were successful in reducing transmission in the year just gone was by applying restrictions to face to face teaching, you get the impression that the “guidance” is hedging its bets somewhat.

There then follows an all time solid gold DfE guidance classic:

[Providers] should not put in place measures which limit the teaching and learning outcome for students, or significantly limit the wider activities offered by the HE provider.

You’d have to assume that Draft #1 omitted the word “outcome” (which in any event is presumably supposed to say “outcomes”) but then it looks like Universities UK or someone else on the Higher Education Taskforce had asked that the word was added so that providers have “flexibility” in how they deliver things in September.

It’s not clear that will work, by the way – the consumer protection law duty surrounds the actual provision (and its delivery method), not its “outcomes”, despite the attempts of universities to insist “it’s all about the outcomes” in the face of demands for fee refunds all year.

And as for “significantly limit the wider activities”, your guess is as good as mine. There’s enough in there for Michelle Donelan to give an answer back to a backbencher who’s complaining about their nephew’s Freshers’ Fair having a long queue, basically.

Elsewhere, it’s all fairly disappointing. We’re told that asymptomatic testing will continue through the summer break “where settings remain open” – but don’t almost all higher education campuses remain “open” in one way or another? “Final decisions” about testing on return and ongoing regular asymptomatic testing in the autumn term will take into account public health advice. Providers are told to “support NHS Test and Trace”, but presumably only to the level that they have been anyway.

Face coverings will no longer be required for students, staff and visitors either in teaching and learning environments or in communal areas”, which does make a voluntary decision to keep them on in some settings vaguely uncomfortable to implement.

A few paragraphs later, it’s important that settings in operation are to be well ventilated, and poorly ventilated spaces should get improved fresh air flow. So if you can’t ventilate an old lecture theatre properly, do you a) run the lectures online, b) keep them going but with masks, or c) plough on? It’s up to you – but you’ll be damned either way, of course.

Outbreak plans remain (although without the silly “levels”), students are to be encouraged to take up the offer of both doses of the vaccine as soon as they are eligible, and providers are to encourage an “atmosphere” within their institution that supports actions people can take to keep themselves and others safe. But that doesn’t seem to include actions people can take to keep themselves and others safe like wearing a mask or avoiding crowded rooms, even though plenty of students won’t have had both vaccine doses by the start of term.

There’s confirmation in here that the government intends to exempt people who have been fully vaccinated from the requirement to self-isolate if they are a contact of a positive case, and from 16 August 2021, we are reminded that children under the age of 18 years old will no longer be required to self-isolate if they are contacted by NHS Test and Trace as a close contact of a positive Covid-19 case.

Is there anything in here on 17 year-olds starting university in September being able to get the vaccine now? There is not – although 18 year olds are to be treated in the same way as children for the self-isolation rules until 4 months after their 18th birthday to allow them the opportunity to get fully vaccinated!

Imagine the spectacular levels of chaos about to ensue in halls as a result of that decision!

The stuff about exempting under 18 1/3s from self-isolating is linked to being “contacted by NHS Test and Trace as a close contact of a positive COVID-19 case”, but elsewhere the text on “households” is intact. I *think* that means arbitrarily drawn whole households would all still have to self-isolate if someone in them tests positive. Or maybe those in a household that have been double vaxxed will be exempt. Maybe a floor of a halls of residence will have a bunch of recently-turned 18 year olds on it exempt from any isolation rules gleefully spreading the virus and not spotting any symptoms, while international students who are in their kitchen that haven’t yet been double jabbed will have to self-isolate if their app that they haven’t downloaded yet pings. To be honest, who knows at this stage.

Finally, the long sections on international students mention the visa concessions announced by immigration minister Kevin Foster last week – there will be an extension to the concession that enables distance and blended learning that will extend to cover the first two semesters of the 2021-2022 academic year, until 6 April 2022, to “help avoid a surge in travel and the associated resources needed to comply with quarantining measures, and help manage the arrival of students.”

It’s moderately misleading insofar as it doesn’t make clear that students “must travel to the UK to commence their studies in person as soon as is practicable” rather giving the impression they can wait until April.

What the section obviously completely fails to do is address the fact that that delaying arrival will be impossible or spectacularly unattractive for many international students – and there’s no news on fixing the problem from the other end of the telescope, like allowing providers to use their halls for hotel quarantine for red list arrivals.

One response to “DfE issues revised guidance for higher education in England after Step 4

  1. The whole thing is a mess, and unless management gets it right, with all the competing interests having different views and needs, it’s going to be a class one fuster cluck (SP!).

    One University I know only too well has publicly stated they’re taking the pragmatic approach, no changes until they’ve consulted with Trades Unions and the local health authorities, so that will probably mean the higher management will remain safely at home and hands-off, whilst the lower level managers do whatever they like without oversight… No change there then.

    I fully expect many staff will be unhappy with whatever happens, likewise the students, how many staff will walk if forced back to campus is the real question.

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