Five big questions hanging over guidance on Christmas

At the time of writing we’re still waiting for that guidance on students’ return home for Christmas, whose appearance we were told would be “imminent” two weeks ago.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Yesterday in Parliament Michelle Donelan suggested that the Higher Education Taskforce was involved:

The Christmas guidance, which is certainly not late – I am sure the hon. Lady will understand that it is important that we get this right. I am working with the sector, with a sub-working group – the taskforce – to identify the issues and ensure that comprehensive guidance is forthcoming. That commitment to students on Christmas remains.

Following the revelations about SAGE advice that universities effectively move to DfE Tier 3 (mainly online, face-to-face for priority courses in as limited number of situations as possible), those trying to finalise the guidance are now in quite a pickle. And government can’t say that it hasn’t had a very long time to think these issues through.

One would assume that one of the main problems with implementing the SAGE recommendation as late as September 21st was that by then it was already too late to stop the “great migration” – thousands of students were already there, thousands more on their way.

And one of the problems both with this SAGE advice and the Indie SAGE advice from back in August is that neither have ever been particularly clear on where it wants students to be. When both have said “reduce face to face to essential”, was the assumption that “away from home” students should be at home… or away?

You may remember that week or so in March when universities were slowly announcing campus closures. To tackle that the Coronavirus bill developed a power enabling the government to give directions for the restriction of attendance at premises used for the provision of education.

But the next clause of the bill was of interest too. That gave the government to give directions requiring the provision, or continuing provision, of education, training and childcare. In theory legislation could both close a campus, and force one to stay open. (These ended up as clauses 36 and 37 of the act). But why?

In the main, higher education was in a policy slipstream behind schools. The summary of bill impacts explains:

These powers are needed to enable the education and childcare systems to keep running as far as possible, mitigating some of the negative impacts of a coronavirus outbreak on those systems and the wider economy. These powers may be used to require relevant providers to stay open or reopen, enable individuals or groups to attend different premises, to change term/holiday dates. The powers may also be used to required relevant institutions to provide additional services, for example, provide extended hours childcare.

On universities, the discussion had concluded that the power to override decisions make by universities was necessary:

HE providers are independent and autonomous institutions regulated by the Office for Students (OfS) as Government’s independent regulatory body for the Higher Education sector. The OfS does not have the power to direct registered providers and its greatest sanctions are deregistration and fines for non-compliance with the conditions of registration. It has limited engagement and hence no direct power with unregistered providers. One option considered was to use informal agreements through sector bodies or contractual agreements. However, this approach would have been inconsistent with the overarching approach taken for other educational settings.

But it’s the “key considerations” in that impact assessment we should pay closest attention to. First of all, the view was that the power (to close or keep open) could and should apply to private halls:

The power should apply to all premises occupied by Higher Education Providers (HEPs) or their students, regardless of whoever is the building’s owner. This means premises, or sections of premises, used for the purposes of higher education are included in the power, including purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA) occupied primarily by higher education students, whether that PBSA is HEP or privately owned. This power will cut across the property rights of private businesses and perhaps individuals and will need drafting with reference to other government departments such as MHCLG and BEIS.

But why was that important? Well, for one very simple reason:

The main focus may need to be on PBSA to avoid large numbers of students travelling and spreading the virus, especially non-UK domiciled students.

In other words, back in March the government was worried that without clear powers enshrined in law, it would lose control of the process by which students would return to their family homes from student accommodation and cause viral spread.

Which does rather beg the question – why is it that seven months on it still hasn’t got a plan on that particular issue, which is about to repeat itself in December?

And it leaves several rather thorny questions now for universities, government and that taskforce:

  1. Given the SAGE advice, is the plan now to carry on regardless in January – when in theory there would be an opportunity to implement the advice, avoid the implications of “return to campus” and achieve the lowering of “R” that SAGE describes?
  2. If we plough on, whatever the advice on a “return” home in December, will it be implemented in reverse in January? In other words, if we are for example requiring self-isolation for a period or some kind of staggering to get students home, are we going to do the same when they come back in the new year? Surely we’re not being super careful over “away from home” students’ return to the shires in December but careless about their subsequent return to poorer urban areas in January, having seen all their mates over Xmas?
  3. If we’re about to get careful advice on students’ return in January – which must surely flow from students “going home” for Christmas – why was September allowed to happen in a virtually uncontrolled way, when SAGE and the government have been thinking about students and the virus since March?
  4. How will a student returning home for Christmas be treated legally? Will this count as a “household visit” or will it have to count as “forming a new household”? Will this be the same UK-wide? And both legally and in guidance, are we going to be able to achieve UK wide consensus here, given the significant number of students that study in another part of the UK to their home domicile? What if for example 7 students in a flat have parents that live in each of the three new tiers in England one each in Wales and Scotland and one each in a country that is and isn’t in a travel corridor? Is the guidance going to be clear for them?
  5. And if students are required to spend two weeks in isolation prior to returning home, will they get the financial support to do so that other citizens on low incomes get? Who will fund that? And will it be funded for the January return too?

And are we doing all of this again over Easter? Really?

2 responses to “Five big questions hanging over guidance on Christmas

  1. I’m sure I read in Wonke a couple of weeks ago that it was expected that 94% of students would have had COVID by Xmas. Based on my experience of daughter at a Univ – COVID is running rampage through halls of residences, many students want it so they can get on with their lives. Already thousands of students have had COVID – as more students have COVID and come out the other side – how relevant is this? Also – instead of going to more on-line – shouldn’t the /univ be looking at going to more face to face as the ‘herd’ becomes immune

    How big a problem will this really be?

  2. H Watson, given that there are now several reported cases of people catching this twice, it may not matter that they have had it as the herd immunity doesn’t seem to last that long.

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