Three weeks ago, SAGE said move teaching online

Papers from SAGE usually appear on a Friday lunchtime - but on Monday night we got an explosive little extra.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Today was the day we got detail on the government’s new strategy for simplified restrictions to slow down the virus – and here we have some detail on the scientific recommendations that led to the mix of measures we now have.

We have the minutes, a paper on the effectiveness and harms of non-pharmaceutical interventions, and a table outlining impacts of various potential interventions. This is the meeting that discussed (for example) the now defunct “circuit breaker” that was trailed in the press and then evidently dropped.

The paper noted that back in late September the rate of increase in infections was expected to accelerate “in the near future” as the impact of school, college and university openings, and policy changes with respect to return to workplaces, and entertainment and leisure venues, filtered through. That certainly came true.

It also says that the £10 billion Test And Trace system is only having a “marginal impact on transmission” because of a “relatively low level of engagement”, likely “poor levels of adherence” and will “likely decline in future” without more resources and overhaul. Funnily enough I was looking at one aspect of the adherence problem amongst students earlier today.

Anyway the big news for us is that as part of a package to reduce transmission and the growth of the virus, the meeting recommended the “closure” of universities with a shift principally to online teaching – a recommendation that obviously went on to be rejected:

A package of interventions will need to be adopted to reverse this exponential rise in cases. Single interventions by themselves are unlikely to be able to bring R below 1 (high confidence). The shortlist of non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPls) that should be considered for immediate introduction includes:

A circuit-breaker (short period of lockdown) to return incidence to low levels.

Advice to work from home for all those that can.

Banning all contact within the home with members of other households (except members of a support bubble).

Closure of all bars, restaurants, cafes, indoor gyms, and personal services (e.g. hairdressers).

All university and college teaching to be online unless face-to-face teaching is absolutely essential.

The underpinning paper recommended that:

Higher education tuition to move to on-line / distance learning for term 1 in place until prevalence has fallen”

And this paper describes all of the “non pharmaceutical interventions” that were looked at, many of which were not shortlisted.

The section marked “closing universities” says doing so would be associated with a 0.3 (0.2-0.5) reduction in the R number, and that mitigations short of closure “should include strong steer towards online learning for all but essential practical activities” – another recommendation that has evidently been rejected, at least in terms of national policy.

It also identifies some implementation issues:

Students may remain in term accommodation even if campus activities are closed, so social events could continue regardless.

Consider need to keep essential courses running (e.g. medical).

Universities will need to manage and address student welfare needs for students living in university and private housing.

Disruption of lab-based and medical courses (e.g. dentistry) will impact the graduate pipeline into health roles.

Highly feasible for HE institutions to offer remote learning for many courses. Fewer issues with equity of access for students, though these remain problematic.

A clear statement about online teaching for FE and HE could avoid institutions believing that they have to maintain in-person tuition to avoid being at a competitive disadvantage.

University staff and UCU in particular are likely to be pretty furious that the table includes a reference to them in relation to Covid deaths and severe disease:

Risk within the HE workforce more than the student body – as FE.

A cross reference to the FE page says:

FE workforce somewhat older and more high risk, and a greater fraction of students are BAME and live at home. Therefore there is the potential for transmission in FE to lead to infection of higher risk individuals.”

Now clearly, policy making is complex – stuff is never as simple as “economy v health” and the implementation of a recommendation of this sort as late as 21st September would have been quite tricky.

But government will now be under major pressure from local politics, organised labour, opposition politics and various others to explain why it rejected the SAGE recommendations.

The line – given again by Michelle Donelan in today’s commons education questions – remains “we decided to prioritise education”. But that feels pretty hollow for a lonely student only allowed out for four hours a week in a visor. And the better we get at “online”, the more they will say “so why am I here”.

We also do need to ask why SAGE hadn’t considered why students would not just go home (and, why students would not just drop out) if in-person teaching ceases. If by September we’d taken young people from all over the country and mixed them together in small, poorly, ventilated accommodation, why would we be considering removing their reason not to do exactly the same thing in the other direction? Maybe that explains the rejection – but if so it piles pressure on a decision over January.

While I’m on, two further nuggets from education questions today. Emma Hardy (shadow universities minister) asked Michelle Donelan about case numbers – Donelan said that “as of next week, we’ll have a new data regime working with the OfS which will be [more] transparent”.

That sounds like we’re about to return to a version of the issued (9th March) then withdrawn F3 notice, which in March required that providers notify OfS the number that had reported a confirmed diagnosis, and the number that had reported symptoms that were suspected to be a result of Covid.

Universities who aren’t being particularly clear with students that aren’t living on campus on a) having to tell them if they have Covid or indeed b) how to report that in are going to want to scramble to tighten up on that right now.

We’d also hope that unlike, say, OfS’ monitoring of finances during the pandemic, we will actually get to see what OfS is seeing – but don’t bet on it. As a reminder, the last time OfS told us anything substantial about higher education provider finances was 557 days ago.

Later Bim Afolami (Hitchin and Harpenden, Conservative) asked about food, F2F teaching and restrictions on social activity. On the latter there was no answer, and on F2F we got the usual line, but on food we got:

Let me be clear – no university should seek to profit from students self isolating – and reported charges at £18 pound a day for food parcels are quite simply outrageous.”

She continued:

Students self isolating in catered halls should receive free food whilst other students who receive food which is either free or at price which can be afforded within a student’s budget. I’ve spoken to many universities on this and I’m also writing to make the point.”

It’s a laudable aim but we are back here to “whose role should this be”. There aren’t likely to be many universities who are able to commit to providing all self-isolating students (off and on campus) delivered food “within a students’ budget” all year.


Since the original publication on Monday evening, we’ve updated the headline on this piece – which originally read “Three weeks ago, SAGE said move teaching online”. While a supplementary paper evaluating different non pharmaceutical interventions did have a section marked “closing universities”, the main paper and minutes only ever recommended moving most teaching online – and of course universities have been open all summer. Sorry for the misleading headline.

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