Testing time for Sturgeon and universities

At First Minister’s questions, Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie was keen to follow up with Nicola Sturgeon over university campus reopening.

You can’t blame him. Back in July (when universities might, just have had time to prepare for any changes to government guidance) scientific advisor Devi Sridhar offered the Scottish Government advice which Sturgeon promised she would consider carefully, committing to a response “over the next few days”.

A month on both Rennie and the wider sector were still waiting a response to that advice. Curiously on Tuesday Sturgeon announced 11 new virus testing centres, including one in St Andrews. Was it coincidence that St Andrews already has international students arriving to complete their quarantine?

The “news” was on guidance changes that evidently are coming. Sturgeon announced:

We will publish revised guidance for colleges, universities and student accommodation, reflecting the most up-to-date scientific advice, by next Tuesday, 1 September. We are still finalising some of the details, including those about testing.

This at least implies that we’ll get some of the science or modelling that the revision is based on, and that testing will form a major part of the revision – not least because Sturgeon added:

Testing has an important part to play in how we protect the student community, and wider communities where student populations are based. The new walk-in testing centre in St Andrews, to which I referred yesterday, will be an important part of that. Further walk-in testing centres will be established across the country between now and October. One of the priorities for those is to look at locations that support student populations.

But there’s clearly more to come too:

We are looking very carefully at all the details of the different steps that we have to take – not just at testing. Detail will be published early next week.

Noting that student migration will represent “the biggest movement of people since the lockdown”, Rennie tried to get an answer on whether all students would be asked to get a test both on arrival and on day 5 – pushing Sturgeon both on testing capacity and student rules (“ will it be a condition of their studies?”)

Inevitably, she was none too keen to ruin her big Tuesday reveal but did remind the chamber of the current guidance to universities. She also suggested a significant level of cooperation on testing capacity and universities is coming:

I am not going to give the specific detail on that, because I want to make sure that we properly finalise it and take the decisions that we think are right and are based on the best advice, and that we have the delivery mechanisms in place.

Later for the Greens, Mid Scotland and Fife’s Mark Ruskell asked specifically about measures to prevent Covid-19 outbreaks as students begin to return to campuses. After a standard answer, Ruskell used the exchange to dig into a row brewing at St Andrews about the balance between in-person and online teaching intended for the term.

Sturgeon did say that “no sector of the economy should be put under pressure to do things that we do not advise” and that the government has been “very clear on the need for a form of blended learning”, but this in the end is a row about the strength of the blend – as she added “different institutions will take different decisions based on their circumstances, and that is right and proper.”

But her final line was very interesting:

All of them [universities] must have regard – very serious regard – to how they keep their student communities and the staff who work in their institutions safe, and to how they ensure that their arrangements do not pose a risk to the wider communities in which they are located.

There’s a danger in over analysis here – for example there is no prospect that universities in Scotland could avoid posing some risk to local communities this Autumn unless they instruct all students to not come at all – and that’s not a proposal on the table.

What’s interesting is the framing here – that the responsibility for minimising the risk of transmission that student migration poses is being allocated firmly to universities. Instinctively this makes sense – but as DK noted on the site on Monday and I noted last week, it probably isn’t that simple in the round.

For those outside of Scotland, it’s dangerous to discern education policy patterns – but given the way decisions reached in Scotland have ended up impacting education everywhere else recently, it would be well worth keeping an eye on the announcement(s) on Tuesday for clues as to what will happen next.

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