Fifteen things to note in today’s DfE return to campus announcement

In the end it was all as signalled.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

A statement from Michelle Donelan and a DfE press release both confirm that remaining university students in England are to “return to campus” from Step 3 of the roadmap, which will happen no earlier than 17 May.

Universities UK has called the announcement “hugely disappointing”, calls on the government to “urgently explain how it reached this decision” and says that universities will now “continue preparing to maximise opportunities for in-person activities from 17 May”. More on that below.

What is clear about that date is that universities who announced rent rebates on their halls for all the time students weren’t invited back are going to struggle to get students to cough up for less than six weeks’ worth of occupancy in May and June.

We’ve already been over the various issues in the headline May 17/Step 3 position. Here we have the extra stuff that got announced today.

The press release

The topline of the DfE PR says “all students to return to in-person teaching from Step 3 of the government’s roadmap”. Are there people in DfE that actually think substantial in-person teaching is happening then?

DfE reckons that “49 per cent of students” are already eligible to return to in-person teaching, subject to decisions by their institutions. That’s an oddly precise figure given it’s almost certainly made up.

On campus testing is being wound down. Upon return, all students and staff are encouraged to take three supervised tests (3 to 5 days apart) at an asymptomatic testing site on campus, where this is available. After that, students will have access to home testing kits throughout the summer term through both the government’s offer of free rapid LFD tests twice weekly to everyone in England, and something called “University Collect’ services, under which universities will distribute tests from communal locations on campus, such as libraries. They’ll do anything at this stage to burn through the stock of these fortune teller fish tests that classic Dom made them buy earlier in the year.

The twig is back. Still nothing for those in “approved” providers, and this time it’s a derisory £15m. Given Michelle Donelan proudly argued that her February £70m was “for three months”, we make £15m about 20 days’ worth – so it basically runs out in a week’s time. Fill your boots.

The parliamentary statement

In the written statement to the house(s), as well as the usual stuff on student space and “assuring all students, staff and parents that student welfare continues to be a priority”, there’s two whole paras on the viciously hostile employment market students are facing:

We are continuing to explore other ways to provide further support for students and particularly appreciate how vital it is that we support graduates and new students as they move into their next stage. We are working in parallel with Universities UK, the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services, the Institute of Student Employers, the Office for Students, and the wider sector to understand what we can do to complement their planned support. We know that providers are best placed to lead on this and have assured them that we will work with them to signpost students to useful resources, share good practice, and communicate effectively with schools, colleges, and employers.

More broadly, the Government is doing all it can to help people who are at the start of their career journey. The Department for Work and Pensions has successfully recruited over 13,500 new work coaches as of the end of March 2021. This will ensure that high-quality work search support is available to those who need it. We are also investing additional funding in the National Careers Service up to March 2022. This investment will support delivery of individual careers advice for those whose jobs/learning have been affected by the pandemic (by end of FY21/22). We have also added additional courses to the Skills Toolkit to develop ‘work readiness’ skills that employers report they value in their new recruits.

No money, just words. Pretty desperately empty words.

DfE guidance update

As well as all that the formal guidance to the sector has been updated. We’ve tracked the changes so you don’t have to.

In March we were told that “evidence collated by SAGE suggests that there was limited evidence of transmission attributed to in-person teaching and learning environments, such as lecture theatres”. The word “anecdotal” has now been added to the sentence. Make of that what you will.

We are told that a return at Step 3 will be “coherent with the opening of more indoor facilities within Step 3” and will leave a short window for in-person teaching and “co-curricular activities to boost student engagement and employability” before the end of the academic year. But unless there’s a law change, that last bit doesn’t actually appear to be true, unless all of those co-curricular activities to boost student engagement and employability are to be held outdoors or will consist of 6 people or less.

Here the Step 3 decision is justified on the basis that decisions on when to lift restrictions, and in which order, seek to “strike a balance between the epidemiological evidence and advice”, the impact lockdown is having on people’s health (including mental health and disproportionate impacts on certain groups), wellbeing, and the economy. It’s almost as if the priority in September was the fee liability kicking in, and that’s less important now.

There’s some new text on Educational Day Visits and Domestic Residential Educational Visits which all looks mildly irrelevant.

The text on who “can” return to university facilities has been updated as follows:

Providers should support the return of students where necessary to support the continuation of their studies, for example, where students do not have access to appropriate alternative accommodation, facilities or study space, where students need to return for health or safety reasons or where there is concern for a student’s mental health or wellbeing. There may also be some students who remained in their university/term time accommodation, or have already returned, including many international students, who are not expected to return to in-person teaching and learning at this stage.

Providers should consider appropriate provision to support access to university facilities for the purposes of online learning, to safeguard students’ wellbeing and to prevent isolation and mental ill health of students. For these students, we would expect university libraries to stay open to provide library services, including study spaces, in a COVID-secure environment. Universities can also open their facilities in line with the wider government easing of COVID restrictions.

There’s new text on face coverings (principally around exemptions) and the new “get a test at home” arrangements on testing.

Cheekily, there’s a line that says “Some students may be eligible for a one-off payment of £500 through the NHS Test and Trace Support Payment scheme, if they are required to self-isolate”. Would it have been so hard to say “the tiny minority of students on universal credit” at the front of that sentence?

A new line on transport says “Students and staff should use private vehicles, walk or cycle wherever possible”, maybe using DfE’s magic teleportation device.

There’s a new section on international students and vaccination that helpfully informs international students that when they become eligible for the vaccine, they can get it like everyone else can as long as they’ve registered with a GP. Sadly there’s nothing in the doc on making sure that home students are in the right place when that happens in June-ish, an issue we looked at here.

Remember the other week when the government was crowing on about international exchange being affordable? There’s a new section on Erasmus+ that says providers who have participants re-entering the UK after a period overseas participating in an exchange need to ensure all of their participants review the information in the section on arrival procedures for students travelling from overseas, and comply with all quarantine and self-isolation requirements that apply to them. In other words – shell out a fortune, unlike what’s being arranged in Ireland.

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