What does “learning to live with Covid” mean for higher education?

I keep hearing people say they’re waiting for guidance from government before they move ahead with plans for September.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

I keep saying back that sadly, we don’t live in the Republic of Ireland.

In terms of specific guidance for the sector in England, merely waiting might be a fool’s errand given evidence from the past eighteen months. But buried underneath the excitement of Euro 2020 we are slowly getting more clues on arrangements and restrictions that might apply in England after the 19th July.

The briefings coming out of Cabinet are now fairly consistent. Freedom day is set for July 19th, and beyond that we’re switching to “learning to live with the virus”.

There has barely been a moment since the start of the pandemic where there haven’t been two camps in policy terms – those arguing for maximum freedom and those arguing for maximum safety. Both have variously used figures, theories and models to back their position – and we’ve watched as the government has wrestled to reconcile those positions.

I won’t fully summarise where that debate is in wider society right now – suffice to say that current government policy appears to be attempting to reach population (or what we used to call “herd”) immunity by vaccinating adults, and infecting children by letting the virus rip around unmasked school settings.

Students are sat uncomfortably there – they’re adults set to be vaccinated, but only set to be all double-vaccinated later than ministers would like as a date for allowing a full reopening of the economy (and for its electorate to board the plane for Benidorm).

There are those that question the morality of vaccinating children and point to the low risks faced by kids that get Covid. There are others that would argue that we vaccinate school children for flu every year, and Covid is more fatal than flu even for young children.

On students, there remains a moral hazard in putting young adults in a position where they are at increased risk of contracting the virus but haven’t yet been given the opportunity to be double jabbed. With most diseases we say to students a) no vaccine will fully protect, and b) it’s on you to take precautions – but we can’t do that for returning students until perilously close to the start of term, and we can’t achieve it at all for most new students – domestic or international. If the government avoids that moral weigh-up, will universities have to weigh it up instead?

At a meeting of the Cabinet yesterday, The Times reports that Chris Whitty supported the planned reopening on July 19 – partly because of the apparently broken link between case numbers, hospitalizations and deaths. The Sun reports that people that have been double jabbed will not have to isolate for 10 days when they come into contact with someone who’s tested positive for Covid – instead, they’ll have to take a lateral flow test each morning for the 10 day period, and can leave the house if they test negative. And the Mail says Covid passports won’t be required at mass events like music festivals and football matches – it will be up to venues whether they want to require some form of certification.

For universities that may well mean no formal campus restrictions, no household isolation (but lots of lateral flow testing, still) and perhaps even a choice on the use of vaccination passports for some or all activities on campus.

Having had a question on guidance from Labour’s Zarah Sultana, universities minister Michelle Donelan has issued a written answer on what might apply to universities. In a sense she couldn’t be much clearer – the plan is for there to be no restrictions:

By the autumn term, we have every expectation that we will have already been able to move forward with Step 4, meaning that there will be no further restrictions on the provision of in person teaching and learning.

And while she’s been pleased to see some digital innovation, the signal she’s sending is that universities facing students that are unhappy about a move of some teaching online won’t be able to use restrictions as cover:

Many providers have developed their digital offering, and as autonomous institutions some might choose to retain elements of this approach. However, they will not have to do this because of Covid-19 restrictions, and our expectation is very clear: universities should maintain the quality and quantity of tuition and ensure it is accessible.

There might need to be “contingency plans” to deal with “any identified positive cases of Covid-19 or outbreaks”, but as long as providers communicate to students what they can expect from planned teaching and learning under different circumstances and scenarios “so that they are able to make informed choices”, there won’t be a problem.

If that is where things settle, that will generate some interesting choices for universities. The first concerns “blended”. What’s becoming clear is that when students say they want it, they mean they want their contact hours both live and in-person and recorded and accessible. And if there’s an hour of contact where you had to pick, for every student that wants or needs the accessibility of online, there’s at least two that want and need the human contact of in-person.

So in policy terms it’s either lots of extra workload on already exhausted staff, very difficult macro-level choices between access and mental health, or the kind of system level creativity that can’t be delivered in time for September given some of the radical changes that would be required to workforce, campus infrastructure and timetabling.

Universities hoping to shift some teaching online – so that the capacity of lecture theatres provides no artificial barrier to pre-Augar, grade-inflation infused recruitment – might have been hoping for signals on “blended” or government restrictions to provide cover, but it’s not coming.

Universities will also be worried about the arrival of international students, the system of quarantining that will prevail and whether they end up allowed to use halls to replace hotels. They’ll want to be able to run some teaching online so that fees can be banked in the event of a difficult start – but again, if that involves choosing between online and in-person, those who do make it onto campus won’t be happy at a lack of “in-person” justified in this way.

Governments may allow (and we got a taste of this from Jeremy Miles in Wales the other day) universities to make their own decisions on safety and viral transmission within a broad framework. But if the nightclubs are open and universities are intent on filling their halls to 100% capacity, it would be bizarre for those same universities to be operating lecture theatres at 30%.

And then who knows what might happen with variants and vaccine escape.

Plus there’s now a clear and emerging need to give students the space, resources and support to re-socialise and rebuild their confidence. It’s looking increasingly like the mere lifting of restrictions won’t be enough. It may not be possible to deliver the support necessary for students most at risk and most impacted by the pandemic when much of the “socialisation” that happens in UK is left to student groups whose capacity has been seriously dented over the past eighteen months.

What that all points to is a need for universities to do the opposite of what was done last year – to be honest with students about the worst that could happen and the level of uncertainty rather than a pre-Augar scramble for funding units via the usual bursts of glorious competitive positivity.

A government and regulator that knew that would temporarily amend the incentives to support it – but as with last year, it’s probably politically better that the production line rumbles on and that nothing really impacts the “supply” of higher education places for panicked parents.

They’re resilient, these young people. That’s the calculation. They’ll cope. And pay their rent.

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