Indie SAGE drops its call for mandatory student and staff testing

Indie SAGE has now published the final version of its statement on universities in the context of Covid-19.

The headline in the document remains unchanged – courses should be offered remotely and online, unless practice or laboratory based – although that’s refined with a call for regular review points (what it calls a planned, data-driven, step-wise pivot to in-person delivery rather than a rapid pivot away from hybrid/dual modes) and decisions that span at least a term to provide some certainty.

Here we’ve picked out some of the changes since it launched its consultation a few weeks ago:

This version drops the recommendation that mandatory testing of students and staff is carried out either before they come to campus or as soon as they arrive on campus. Instead a detailed list of new recommendations on testing includes:

  • Universities may wish to “consider encouraging” students and staff on arrival at the university to access testing through university or community health services.
  • Student health services, and university occupational health services must foster a “constructive working relationship” with their local public health team(s) agree a joint approach to Covid-19 testing for staff and students.
  • Diagnostic testing for anyone with symptoms must be readily available and easy to adhere to.
  • Support needs to be provided for all those required to isolate, including support to enable them to self-isolate.
  • Full use should be made of university student and staff information systems as required for efficient contact tracing, with notification and management of any clusters of cases.

Crucially, it says that any testing strategy needs to be nationally coordinated, in partnership with appropriate national public health bodies. This, it says, will help universities make the case for infrastructure and testing capacity across all communities.

This new version stresses that “hybrid” approaches to teaching (some in-person, some online, with universities preparing to rapidly transition to full online depending on cases) are “also the most disruptive for staff and student planning and workload intensity” alongside off-on lockdown measures, Covid-19 infection, isolation, and sickness – and so warns against them where possible.

On the “digital divide” it says that universities should conduct an audit before the start of term to determine that students have the facilities to study online (e.g., computers, internet access, study space). Then universities should implement a strategy, supported by government funding, to ensure that all students have the necessary resources – which could include the use of on-campus IT facilities, provision of equipment to students, or use of space in the community.

There’s new text on working together. This time the report says that national coordinated steps should be taken by universities – they should “work together to develop guidance, policy, and practice”, rather than “compete” in their offers to students.

For university towns and cities, where students represent large proportions of the population, transport authorities should consider laying on increased number of buses and trains to and from campus to support social distancing.

Finally, the original version was keen to reject what it said was the UUK position that “significant in-person teaching should be offered”, but Indie SAGE has been becalmed by UUK’s John De Pury – who said on the Zoom call launching the consultation that “UUK is not recommending significant in-person teaching, but rather asking members to look at risks and balance learning always with safety in mind”.

Someone may need to tell UUK to update its press release from June 17th, which says that “although their first term will be different from previous years, most students can expect significant in-person teaching”.

One response to “Indie SAGE drops its call for mandatory student and staff testing

  1. I can see the point of not allowing resource differences between universities – in their capacity to set up testing for staff and students – to become entrenched (and highly visible) across the sector in terms of the capacity to run in-person classes, and in terms of staff/student safety. I can see it’s important not to treat universities as separate from their local communities and local public health planning. But this move seems to let the government’s out-sourced test, track and trace system completely off the hook. Why is it so difficult for universities – *all* universities – to access regular, free, fast and reliable testing for their staff and students? Why is it the sole responsibility of universities to establish this? Why are local public health directors and officers still not being resourced to deal with this issue (and many others)? Why doesn’t the Indie SAGE report focus on these questions?

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