It’s helpful if you need to either implement restrictions, or encourage people to take risks, if you can demonstrate why you’ve reached that conclusion and if you’ve taken everyone with you. Alternatively, you can rely on someone else’s decision making – which is arguably what we’ve been doing for most of the pandemic.
But once it really is up to you, you have the burden of securing acceptability and confidence in your decisions from your own students and staff, and wider stakeholders.
And before you even get there – before you recommend and deliver risk mitigations – you have to agree on the size and shape of the risk “envelope” you’re mitigating.
Take a traditional basket of “freshers week” activities, which could involve day time and night time activities, stuff on and off campus, and stuff organised by student groups, commercial operators, halls managers, students’ unions and both academic and central departments. Getting all of the players on the same page over something like this is not a straightforward process.
But as well as some detail, there are arguably some major “in principle” decisions ahead where the sector seems to be waiting for someone else to take the lead.
We are now entering a period where worrying about the risks posed by indoor education settings is a “back burner” issue for governments – because in most cases, campuses are relatively quiet for a few months.
That’s in marked contrast to other settings involving lots of indoor mixing – events, nightclubs, cinemas and theatres – all of which are very eager to (re)open.
So in the face of rising infection rates and hospitalisations (and rising public concern about them), yesterday’s Cabinet Office “Moving to step 4 of the roadmap” update included the interesting line:
We encourage organisations in higher risk settings to use the NHS COVID Pass as a condition of entry, in order to reduce the risk of COVID-19. This will especially be the case in large crowded settings where people are likely to be in close proximity to others outside their household. The Government reserves the right to mandate certification in certain venues at a later date if necessary.”
For now, that’s both about hoping that nightclub owners help to slow transmission but also about gentle moves towards reducing vaccination refusal freedom – fronted out by bouncers, rather than Boris.
That may or may not work – and the early signs are not encouraging.
So what should universities do?
The Cabinet Office document also says:
There are some settings where the NHS COVID Pass should not be used as a condition of entry, in order to ensure access for all. This includes essential services and essential retailers which have been able to stay open throughout the pandemic.
Are universities “essential” in this way? Or is access to them a valuable potential public health crowbar?
On the one hand, universities are full of people who the research continues to indicate have soft demand for the vaccine. The sector will want to be seen to “do its bit” and if we are edging towards the reduction of vaccination refusal freedom, usage of the Covid PASS for some or all campus activities would feel right.
There are however major moral, and plenty of legal issues – it’s not easy to deny someone of something they’ve already been sold, even if you warn them. There’s EDI issues if you look at the hesitancy data. And should universities be forcing students to get a jab in principle?
This isn’t really a decision that can or should be made only about the “campus”. What about halls, where there’s a huge slice of risk? What about others’ halls – which our term dates cause to be filled at certain points? And asking the on-campus SU bar to be cautious doesn’t work if the local freshers’ wristband crew are packing out the local nightclubs.
Some universities and some courses could identify some components that could be Covid PASS dependent. In theory you could say “if you want to experience the live lecture, you need the Covid PASS”. That sounds easier in theory than in practice, of course.
And yes – I know that a lot of the above is also about data, where the pandemic is by later in the Summer, and whether any assistance comes on international students’ arrival and the “jabbing” of people turning 18 this and next month.
But universities can’t now do nothing. Accommodation contracts are signed. The runaway train left the station a long time ago.
Think about the way this nightclub group is being framed. Are universities going to go with the (relative) freedom of REKOM UK, or the (relative) safety of the Covid PASS?