Return to campus in Scotland – even more staggering

There was a moment yesterday when the Scottish Government published a page in its tertiary Covid guidance collection called “Return to campus”, and some in the sector thought it meant January 2021.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Alas it was merely renaming a page about September 2020 that used to say “Progressing through the phases”, presumably because the Scottish Government has long since abandoned its “phased return to normality” route map plan.

Nevertheless we did later get an outline announcement from Education Secretary and Deputy First Minister John Swinney on what he called “judgements we have made across a range” of education issues – including January plans.

Borrowing from Gavin Williamson last week, Swinney buried his bombshell on higher education underneath the bigger news that Higher and Advanced Higher 2021 exams have been cancelled.

Students had, he said, “lost significant learning time” and this had been “compounded by the disruption many have suffered as they were obliged to self-isolate, had to learn from home or even saw their school closed”. That means that a model involving teacher judgement of evidence of learner attainment will be in use for the second year in a row. Swinney said that “no algorithm will be used”, but it’s not clear whether/how the model announced alongside in outline by the SQA will avoid inevitable grade inflation.

Just as in England, lost learning time and disruption is a thing that is only ever mentioned in relation to school and college students. Of course universities are autonomous – but you’d think a politician would at least signal some understanding re higher education students.

Where higher education was mentioned, we’re back to staggering again. Detailed guidance will follow, but having decided not quite to copy England’s five week stagger or Wales’ four week stagger, Swinney announced that universities in Scotland are going to be told to stagger the return of their undergraduate students to campuses over “at least” six weeks – which means some students will have been asked to clear off and not return to campus for a whopping 10 weeks!

With what he said would be “only very limited exceptions”, undergraduates should initially plan to restart their studies at home and only return to campuses and term-time accommodation when “notified to do so by their universities”. Some will have as little as four weeks “back” before Easter.

As in England and Wales, students will be offered lateral flow Covid-19 testing when they get to campus, and again we have no detail on whether that is to continue all term. What we do have is a plea that all students studying away from home restrict social interaction for a fortnight before they return to university, and for the same period after they get there. How lovely.

The myriad problems with this overall approach we have already covered extensively when we got the England announcement last week – and the big one on rent came up in questions to Swinney after the statement.

Labour’s Iain Gray said that the staggered return of students would lead to universities “being inundated with demands for a refund” of rent paid for student accommodation. All Swinney could offer was an instruction for universities to front that out:

Any issue about accommodation is for the universities to address with the students affected.”

As we said last week, basing your public health policy on students choosing to not spend time in accommodation that they are paying for is an interesting move. Surely if students need to do this in the public interest, the state should pay and offer alternatives where needed?

And if the “staggered return” is really about public health, riddle me this. You’re a student that studies away from home. It’s the day after Boxing Day. You’re leafing through the Radio Times. Do you a) stick around for “The Big New Year’s In, as Paddy McGuinness hosts a fabulous party and starts the countdown to 2021 in his own hilarious style”, or b) go back to your student HMO and have an actual New Year’s celebration?

And if you choose b), you’ll be keeping it a secret given it’s outwith the guidance – and so you won’t be getting tested. For at least six weeks.

So far students have been fairly quiet on this, but I’d expect calls for housing refunds to grow when students in all parts of the UK are actually told when they are “allowed” to return.

Politicians are on pretty thin ice if they think they’ll get away with saying full rent should be paid, or palming the problem off to universities. They have, after all, been telling students they’ll “get them home” all term. And parent outrage over rent will probably be more important than rent strikes etc once the reality hits and students are given that date.

Quite why international students due to start in January would now bother is beyond me. Wouldn’t you just pitch up in September?

Universities are now inevitably going to be very very careful about wording of those return to campus emails. On the one hand they’re being asked to tell students not to come back early. On the other hand the more they insist, the more cries will grow for rent refunds. Some linguistic gymnastics will doubtless follow.

For a while now, the Scottish Government has been promising that it would “learn the lessons” from September. What might they be? Who knows. The accompanying press release to the Swinney announcement merely says that universities and other student accommodation providers should plan for how best to manage shared accommodation in ways that reduce the risk of transmission between students and between households “drawing on lessons learned from the autumn term”.

Actually, I’m being unfair. The key “lesson” that SAGE warned of before last term was that running your campus at 30% occupancy while running your halls at 100% occupancy would see outbreaks in halls. Who knew that the solution would be to indeed reduce occupancy for most of the term – but to get students to pay to not be there.

One response to “Return to campus in Scotland – even more staggering

  1. Some interesting points, and your right about s-TOO-DENSE partying in Hovels of Multiple Occupation, the number of cases shot up here in the last few days, after the halls emptied, due to the party’s before/IF going home.

    Those s-TOO-DENSE will no doubt be partying again in/for the new year, no matter what the various Universities P.R. departments say, Smuff’s P.R. statement picked up by both the local press and THE claiming the students were innocent, after the BBC and others reported partying in the street outside of halls, and the HMO partying we’ve seen locally doesn’t wash. Time Universities admitted the students are young adults and are responsible for themselves and their behaviours, good or bad, unless childhood is now to be lengthened even further…

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