Indie SAGE has more last minute advice for the sector

Independent SAGE has published an emergency statement on universities in the context of rising Covid-19 cases.

You’ll recall that it published a whole bunch of recommendations for the sector in late August (arguably much too late) that went on to form the basis of UCU’s intervention with a call to pause campus reopening the following weekend (again arguably much too late).

Here Indie SAGE joins in with that thing that it’s cool to do on Twitter right now – it knocks on your door, shouts “told you so” (as if the runaway train could have somehow been halted in late August), makes some improbable suggestions and then runs off:

Independent SAGE has, since its first consultation on Universities (21st August 2020), expressed concern about the significant risk of COVID-19 outbreaks as the Autumn term starts across the UK. Our key recommendation has been to start the term with as much online learning as possible to allow room for MORE in-person teaching later in the term, depending on infections, rather than start with in-person and then move AWAY from it if there are cases, thus aiming to avoid the late Autumn outbreaks predicted by SAGE and maximise the effectiveness of residential bubbles.

We are as they say where we are, so their goal in the teeth of the crisis is both to prevent further transmission across campuses and somehow enable what it calls the “liveability” of student life on campus in the coming weeks. “Modelling shows that transmission occurs in residential halls and through in-person teaching” (well modelling of transmission in universities with lots of halls shows that, yes) so Independent SAGE says that universities should “immediately” implement “five key” recommendations.

First, it says that universities should transfer all teaching and learning online by default – effectively a move to Tier 3 in the DfE guidance. A number of universities have effectively moved there already, some university departments are moving there with the knowledge of their “centre”, and in a number of schools/faculties/departments this appears to be happening without the central university being in any particular control of it.

Next, it says that essential in-person teaching and learning (e.g., components of laboratory or practice-based courses) should be contingent on the regular testing of students and staff, with a dashboard approach as adopted by US Colleges, and with stringent adherence to face coverings, handwashing, physical distancing, and ventilation mitigations.

Clearly regular testing of students and staff may be beyond the finances of some, but the rest are interesting insofar as they have not formed the basis of anything from OfS so far. Why isn’t transparency over the number of infections an expected behaviour in its “F” conditions? Why isn’t following the health aspects an expectation in its “E” conditions? Who, in other words, is checking that universities are following the guidance?

Anyway, let’s say that’s all do-able. What do you then do about the fact that residential students have already moved in?

Indie SAGE then says that students should be offered the choice of whether to live on campus / in their university accommodation, or at home elsewhere (e.g., with parents and caregivers), and then should review that at the end of the calendar year (i.e., December) and avoid “numerous journeys” between home and university.

That’s right. Here we are yet again assuming that all students are young boarders. Because in this world commuters, mature students, PGR students and those students who travel home each weekend don’t exist.

I wouldn’t mind but the universities and courses most likely to have commuter students are the ones more likely still to be face to face teaching. Doh!

Then for those away from home, those who choose to remain away while learning online should maintain the right to return home for the rest of the term at any point, “with accommodation fees refunded, and with testing before doing so”. Simples!

And then we should ensure:

Full and generous support to students both to self-isolate and to access online learning resources, including practical needs (e.g., food, laundry), learning (e.g., IT, connectivity), and social and emotional needs (e.g., buddy systems, regular wellbeing checks, online events).

There’s little to disagree with there, although given the scale and longevity of the outbreaks we could be about to see, many will be looking at the solutions implemented so far at Glasgow and Man Met and thinking “hmmm. Would we be able to implement across all halls? Private ones too? What about HMOs? And all year?”

And a full year’s rent relief for students not able to pay their landlord for the full year contract they’ve signed? Who’s funding that? You certainly don’t get the impression that Nicola Sturgeon shouting her demands into the wind on this are going to make much difference, and that’s Scotland.

Oh. There is a solution.

Our recommendations have financial consequences for universities and for students and we call on the government to support the sector”.

This, lest we forget, is a recommendation to a DfE that found what appears to be the policy equivalent of a paperclip, a bounty wrapper and an old 10p piece down the back of its sofa when challenged to help students that its own bungling forced into a gap year. So you’ll forgive me for not holding out much hope.

Indie SAGE says that for next year, we need to learn from the situation we are witnessing now, because the situation and the debate are different in countries where universities are state funded. It calls on VCs and UUK to work collectively and press crucial reset buttons for UK academia:

We need to plan now for the next academic year, which it says will doubtless involve managing the impacts of the current A-level year group, long Covid, Brexit, financial stress across the sector and so on.

It’s a message aimed in part at Matt Hancock and Gavin Williamson, who wrote to Directors of Public Health asking them to ”engage in depth with universities in your area to help them to establish the protocols that will be necessary in a range of scenarios”. Last Wednesday. On 23rd September.

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