Should universities make students get the Covid-19 vaccine?

There’s some comprehensive and quite concerning polling out today on students and attitudes to vaccination.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

The headline finding is pretty stark in the context of a predicted autumnal third wave. 13 per cent say they definitely won’t get the vaccine or that it is not very likely, and that’s not because they’ve already had it – that group is included in the positive percentage.

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Savanta ComRes for UEL surveyed 1,020 UK university students online between 5th and 18th March.

That does mean that when we’re looking at some of the ethnicity splits we’re looking at very small numbers, so some caution needs to be exercised – but there are big themes in the data that the sector will need to play its part in addressing. Your rule of thumb for a sample this size is that figures would be accurate for the whole population (all students) to plus or minus 3 per cent.

Various splits of that likelihood data are available at a lower level of certainty – 9 per cent of students in the midlands would say no, and 20 per cent of part-time students would refuse. But it’s on ethnicity where the differences are really significant – 29 per cent of Black students are in that refusal group compared to 12 per cent of White students.

And there are some interesting challenges on international students – UK domicile refusal runs at 12 per cent, but is at 41 per cent, 53 per cent and 35 per cent for students from Africa, North America and South America respectively.

The polling goes on to test some hypotheses about what would make the difference. 43 per cent of students would be more likely to get the vaccine if they were invited to do so at their university campus, a finding that is pretty consistent across gender, mode, region, level, domicile and ethnicity. What we don’t know is whether that finding would hold if the vaccine was offered on campus in, say, July.

The polling also explores emerging and difficult questions about compulsion. 60 per cent of students would support making vaccination compulsory to access in-person teaching, with 22 per cent opposed – although for Black students support for that measure falls to 47 per cent with 26 per cent opposed. Interestingly, there’s less support for vaccination as a condition of accessing shared accommodation – that runs at 55 per cent approve and 28 per cent opposed. There’s a similar split on making vaccination a condition of access to social events.

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We tend to think of vaccines as being a personal conscience issue – but Covid-19 changes things from a community perspective and household perspective. When you’ve got a full 40 per cent of students saying they would feel uncomfortable interacting with students and staff at their university that have not had the vaccine, you’re in the realm of a series of very painful moral, political and diversity trade-offs that need careful discussion and working through with students and staff – particularly if the government ends up gifting decisions on all of this to autonomous universities. 39 per cent of students saying that they will only return to in-person study at their university once all students and staff there have been offered the vaccine is also a finding that signals the potential difficulties in thinking this through in coming weeks.

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There’s some mildly diverting findings on student opinion on the handling of the pandemic by different actors. The NHS gets an 81 per cent approval rating, universities get 55 per cent (better than Rishi Sunak, at 46 per cent), and DfE and Boris Johnson get 25 per cent and 22 per cent respectively. Just 16 per cent think Gavin Williamson has handled the pandemic well.

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On iNews this morning Winston Morgan, a UEL reader in toxicology and clinical biochemistry involved in commissioning the research, said it would be a mistake to assume the reason behind the black student community’s caution over accepting a vaccine is down to “irrational hesitancy” – and instead puts it down to trust:

To take a vaccine you really need to trust the organisation or the government providing you with the vaccine, telling you that it’s safe. Through the lived experience, whether it’s interactions with the NHS or the Government, people have not had that level of trust that would enable them to say yes”.

I call it ‘vaccine agency’; where black students feel empowered to demand clearer information about safety and efficacy from those offering the vaccine including universities. Once that occurs, black students will take the vaccine… It may be that some of the messaging is trying to blame the community for not taking the vaccine but I think there is a lot of responsibility for the Government to have the right messaging and give people the confidence”.

As ever with the pandemic, decisions on approach on this one, both locally and nationally, will need to be made pretty sharpish. A number of US universities have already made their position clear on compulsion, and even if universities hedge their bets, wider society, employers, placement providers and accommodation firms are likely to have answers ready almost immediately.

So as this debate grows, university admissions departments are going to need to know what the answer is to “will you make students get the vaccine” (and in which contexts). On this evidence, without major and significant interventions, neither “Yes” nor “No” feel like the right answers.

One response to “Should universities make students get the Covid-19 vaccine?

  1. In the context where we are being told that the vaccine offers good protection against serious illness to the individual who has had it, but may do little to prevent them transmitting it to others, the position held by ’40 per cent of students saying they would feel uncomfortable interacting with students and staff at their university that have not had the vaccine’ seems to have very little rational basis: any individual’s chance of getting seriously ill rests very largely on whether or not the themselves have been vaccinated, and hardly at all on whether others have. There’s kind of conflicting messaging going on here, with us being told that getting vaccinated is a service to the community/national duty at the same time as being told that we shouldn’t assume that our own vaccination will protect others – and this is all the more surprising as one would have expected this government to have no qualms about appealing to individual self-interest, which might have been (on the basis of what they say) both more accurate and more effective. This apparent contradiction has been nagging at me for months, so if anyone can resolve it, I woiuld be very grateful.

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