So that’s that then. The lack of mention of universities or students in the government’s Easter Monday press conference pretty much seals the fate of the academic year.
We should have guessed really. Earlier in the day the Westminster government published a Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (SPI-M) paper summarising the modelling of impacts of “Step Two”, and that made clear that it hadn’t accounted for any further changes to higher education beyond the 8th March “practical courses” return.
That does, by the way, mean that the potential impact of the away-from-home student “return” from university for Easter (and back in the other direction) hasn’t actually been modelled at all.
The bottom line is that given the commitment to a week’s notice, “all other higher education students” are not returning alongside the rest of Step 2 easing measures next Monday, and the guidance position remains as follows in England:
Students in university and other higher education settings undertaking practical and practice based courses who require specialist equipment and facilities can attend in-person teaching and learning where reasonably necessary. Providers should not ask students to return if their course can reasonably be continued online.
It always was the case that the government only ever committed to reviewing the current position by the end of the Easter Holidays. We’ve never known what that means, but given Oxford’s Trinity term starts on Sunday 25 April and Cambridge’s Easter term starts on Tuesday 27 April, let’s call it Monday 26 April and be done with it.
That now means that in England, we’re not realistically looking at a return to face-to-face teaching for everyone else until at least 17th May (the slated date for Step 3), by which time it’s hard to believe that there will be much teaching left at all on most courses anyway.
Despite public lobbying from Universities UK and the mission groups, it’s been the case for some weeks now in England that once an exemption for practical courses had been established (and most providers had moved to online end of year assessment), we were dancing on the head of a pin over everything else. Whether it was April 12 or May 17, the law is still quite restrictive on gatherings exemptions that allow things to be done indoors:
Exception 2 is that the gathering is reasonably necessary for the purposes of a course of study or essential life skills training provided by a provider of higher education”.
The lobbying had been focussed on mental health and wellbeing – but if a student who studies away from home is happy at home and isn’t on a course “allowed back” yet, it’s still not clear why dragging them back to campus for a tiny handful of hazmat suited classes (that’ll need to be dual delivered anyway because lots of international students can’t get here) while cooped up in a room all week and still unable to meet others unless it’s outdoors is somehow essential for their learning outcomes, wellbeing and mental health.
I could make a decent argument that there would be little worse for plenty of students’ learning outcomes, wellbeing and mental health – and arguably we’re still some distance from understanding and setting out what we think students would do all week if they were to return. Ironically, the one thing students don’t need campuses to reopen for (actual teaching) is pretty much the only thing that would be allowed – and yet continues to be touted as “necessary” for their learning outcomes, wellbeing and mental health.
In Wales the position is as was announced by Kirsty Williams on Monday 15th March (later published as guidance on 26 March) – that students can return for “blended learning” for the duration of the summer term. Travel for educational purposes is a reasonable excuse to travel outside of local areas, and that includes moving to a term time address and commuting for students and staff. Students have a reasonable excuse to travel from England, Scotland or Northern Ireland to Wales and vice versa if they are travelling to access education – and Wales assumes that students who study away from home maintain two households.
The legal gatherings and travel exceptions in Wales apply for “accessing or receiving educational services”. It has never been clear whether this would cover extra-curricular activities.
Almost the whole of Scotland is at its alert Level 4. Right now universities can operate with a 5% of total students at any one time limit on in-person learning, with some flexibility for smaller institutions and for postgraduate students. From 26 April, universities will operate something called “Restricted Blended Learning” in Levels 4 and 3, and “Blended Learning” in Levels 2, 1 and 0. Details on the difference are in the guidance.
Exemptions to legal gatherings rules in Scotland apply for “childcare, education or training”, which remains the widest of the nations’ exemptions.
In Northern Ireland HEIs are to continue to deliver remote learning to the maximum extent possible until further easing is announced in line with the NI roadmap. The legal gatherings exemptions apply to “educational activity” in institutes of higher or further education.
Student hardship will still be around. The SLC/SFE have already confirmed that students who aren’t “at” university in the third term won’t have their loan cut to the “living at home” rate – although at the same time there’s no prospect of it being increased (or the final year UG rate, which is already lower, being increased). Universities minister Michelle Donelan made clear that the big hardship fund was only to cover until the end of the financial year – yet here we are in a new one with no news on any more money, and no prospect of a mass reopening of hospitality in a way that would restore the income many students need to get through this coming term.
The relative generosity of the devolved administrations ameliorates the problem outside of England somewhat, notwithstanding the ongoing problems surrounding support for Northern Irish students studying elsewhere.
We don’t really know how many students that study away from home are “away” or at home. Last week HEPI said 66 per cent of students were in their term time accommodation in March – but given about 1 in 5 live with parents and about 1 in 5 live in their own residence, that suggests that about 26 per cent study away from home and are at university, and about 34 per cent have stayed away as asked. The 26 per cent will include lots who couldn’t go home at Xmas, and those on medical /practical courses. But in any event we’re looking at around 700,000 people who pay rent on a property they’ve both been asked to, and have agreed to avoid since December.
Restrictions in wider society continue to ease around the UK in different ways and at a different pace – but where there are crossovers, the working assumption is that things like the easing of restrictions on catering, non-essential retail, libraries and sports facilities will apply to campuses even if guidance on the “return” of students to teaching remains in place.
There are plenty of people bemoaning the idea that (for example) you can get a tattoo in England from Monday or shop for a washing machine, but you can’t sit in a socially distanced seminar room. There’s some sense to that comparison – but this has never been about seminar rooms. All easing has a cost, even it’s one of perception rather than modelled infection or transmission.
If you were a politician looking at the tales of student gatherings, litter and BBQs in redbrick city parks when the weather was good the other day, would you be giving a green light to university to fill up their landlocked cruise ships and cause even more students to return to those cities when everyone that “needs” to be back already is? And even if we’re only looking at commuter students, isn’t it still wise to keep usage of public transport down unless necessary?
There will now be concerns that more students will demand fee refunds, partly because of the now yawning difference in the student experience between those that returned in January and early March, and those that have not yet returned. But given OfS guidance last summer effectively told universities how to comply with consumer protection law, and given that universities have attempted to publicly argue that the tuition fee only covers teaching, assessment and learning outcomes (even if delivered/obtained online), the leg to stand on here from a sector perspective feels pretty weak.
Universities keen to rebuild student confidence, mental health and engagement with other students and/or the campus will now need to consider whether a late May initiative is viable, and will need to look to double welcome weeks and other “pre- autumn term” activity is instead the better call.
And on vaccination passports – an increasing number of universities in the US have announced that they will require students to have been vaccinated. This may well end up being a tricky situation for universities who are used to recommending but not mandating vaccination for stuff like MMR or meningitis – students are more likely to refuse, there are major ethnicity differences and even a university saying “well our position is X” may well find itself under pressure from work placement or student accommodation providers taking a different view.