Universities UK publishes advice on students self-isolating

Universities UK has published a checklist of key considerations for universities on supporting students who are required to self-isolate.

You’ll remember that shortly after a set of initial major halls outbreaks in Scotland, Universities Scotland published something called a “consistent core of support” for students in Scotland that included three measures specifically aimed at students who find themselves needing to self-isolate or quarantine.

Trouble was, the core wasn’t really consistent. It only applied to students in provider run halls.

Then as the crisis spread to England, last week an emergency meeting (and the first actual non-training meeting since February) of the OfS student panel was held – its Chair Martha Longdon had been “particularly concerned” about the impact of the pandemic on students who are having to self-isolate.

This resulted in a series of recommendations – the “main things” that universities should be considering in order to support students in the coming weeks and months, in three categories – communication with students, student wellbeing and support and addressing loneliness.

Hours later, there was a moment at at 6:59 am this morning when Radio 4 Today’s Nick Robinson announced:

Coming up in the next hour on this programme. Universities are publishing guidance on students returning. That’s right. They’re publishing it today.”

We thought – that’s a strange way to frame the OfS student panel stuff. But it turned out that, not wanting to be upstaged by the OfS student panel, Universities UK has rush-released its own guidance. UUK’s Julia Buckingham duly got a rough ride from a genuinely angry sounding Robinson. Listen from about 10 past 7.

So what’s in there? As ever the framing is designed to assure without actually giving anyone anything they might rely on:

This checklist provides a framework for individual universities to adapt to their own institutional settings and contexts. It is not an exhaustive list but covers a range of key issues to consider and should be read alongside relevant guidance from the Westminster government and devolved administrations. This publication does not set prescriptive rules for universities but instead identifies key considerations.

Of note here is ensuring that students have access to a range of necessities during self-isolation – food or food delivery services, where possible allowing for religious or dietary requirements, laundry services, cutlery and dishes, personal hygiene products, cleaning materials and bin bags, tissues and toilet rolls – which might include a “basic care package”.

To my surprise, this recommendation isn’t restricted to provider run halls – but I’d be surprised to see a university commiting to the above for private halls, HMOs and commuter students, particularly for the whole academic year. And even if they do, why are educational charities spending students’ tuition fees on this when the state should be stepping in?

There’s an emerging controversy across a number of universities about these “necessities” services where local student media takes the items on offer and works out the markup. UUK steers clear of advising that the support identified be provided for free or at cost.

There’s a set of “considerations” on support that are hauntingly familiar to anyone that’s read the Universities Scotland or OfS stuff. We’re talking things like staying in regular contact (with the words “proactive and personal” stressed), encouraging (not requiring like that initial go in Scotland) all students and staff to download the NHS app, and some advice that you read and think “blimey, are they having to remind universities of that?” – like “ensuring that students with declared disabilities should have specific needs supported”.

Students are also to be encouraged to use student wellbeing and mental health support services, to be asked if they would like family or friends involved in support for mental health, and providers are even told (here on 6th October) to ensure that accommodation staff and student-facing professional service teams are trained in mental health awareness. No wonder Nick Robinson was angry.

Providers are advised to do some things so extraordinarily obvious that it’s not worth the paper the checklist isn’t printed on. We’re talking “working in close partnership with local public health authorities… to inform decisions about testing, contact tracing, outbreak response and self-isolation”. Thank god, said the senior team at Fibchester University, picking up the phone to the local Director of Public Health for the first time as a result of the UUK PDF.

On social activity, providers are asked to work with students’ unions to provide peer support and safe social interaction, with wider measures to support students to maintain social interactions during self isolation such as online activities offered by clubs and societies. This is in marked contrast to St Andrews where safe face to face club and society activity is being facilitated that links their activity to the university’s graduate attribute framework. As VC Sally Mapstone makes clear:

I’m very conscious that we and assorted governments have spent a great deal of the last six months telling you precisely what you can’t do in the middle of the pandemic. The St Andrews Can Do initiative, an ambitious collaboration between the University and the Students’ Association, will support students, and staff, with creative solutions and resource.

There’s also a list of bits and bobs that are not unhelpful – making sure that cultural and religious observance is supported during self-isolation, safe rubbish collection, “access to guidance for safe and appropriate online behaviour” – along with a vague paragraph on bridging the digital divide that will put that £256m under stress:

Making sure that students have the technology and capability to access learning, including library services and learning support (such as access to personal tutoring) as well as social support and interaction.

And finally, a little list of academic and immigration considerations:

Ensuring that there are mitigating actions and processes in place to help students fulfil their immediate obligations during the self-isolation period, including for all students, extenuating circumstances granted for academic work and, for international students, police registration and Biometric Residence Permit (BRP) collection.

The emerging question is whether what amounts to an escalatingly expensive set of treatments for what feels like a widespread problem will be enough – or whether we should be doing something different (particularly next term) to try to reduce the problem in the first place. This morning’s other Wonk corner piece may provide some clues.

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