What does Michelle Donelan’s “testing on return” letter tell us?

On Friday universities minister Michelle Donelan write to higher education providers to “set our continued priorities for the new term”.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Since the dramatic announcement about Christmas on the following day some have questioned whether the existing plans for the new year (which in most cases is now less than a fortnight away) would remain.

This letter predates that big announcement, so there could yet be changes – but it’s more likely that the current guidance remains in place, albeit with some stronger emphases as signalled in this letter.

Just as it is in schools, lateral flow testing is “at the heart” of DfE’s plans to return all students back in the new year. What’s interesting is the shift in purpose between the exercise everyone has just run and in the new year.

In December, the policy to support students to “return home” focused on travelling after the 4-week period of national restrictions during which students would have limited their contact, and testing was offered as what Donelan here calls an “optional additional assurance”.

In January it is “pivotal” and there is a “clear expectation” that “every student” should be tested. Given the anecdotal reports about take up in December, that’s likely to require a huge increase in participation.

As such, Donelan promises “best practice examples” to help universities promote the benefits of getting a test, because the research shows that these messages are more powerful when coming from “your own institution, staff members or student representatives” who students “know and respect” (you know, as opposed to, say, the government).

In addition:

  • Universities are asked for their “continued cooperation” in setting a “strong expectation” for students to be tested on return.
  • There will be a government communications plan which will include paid advertising on social media and radio, as well as influencer and partnership activity with student platforms e.g. UniDAYS.
  • The expectation to be communicated is that every student should be tested unless they have had a positive test within 90 days.
  • Universities are asked to consider “proportionate initiatives” to encourage students to take up the testing on offer, and are asked to consider using “behavioural contracts” where these are used.
  • If a student refuses to be tested and has not had a positive test within 90 days then DfE is “strongly recommending” that universities make clear to them that they should not access campus until they have self-isolated for 10 days.
  • And universities are being asked to keep records here – all universities are to ask their students to confirm which of these measures they have taken.

The focus on “accessing campus” here is fairly surreal given students may well be knocking around in their own accommodation and roaming around university towns and cities for weeks beforehand – but making this officially about return to university towns and cities would then amplify calls for government backed rent rebates, so instead the focus is on return to campus.

The letter is also oddly silent on whether the expectation is that students will undergo two tests – which takes the odds of detecting a positive case from 50:50 to 75 per cent, but also would mean having to deny access to campus or face to face teaching for much of week beginning January 4th.

And there’s nothing in the letter on whether this all needs to carry on running throughout the term.

Of course, students feel concerned that if they test positive, they will have to self-isolate so Donelan says that is important to continue to make sure that students feel as supported as possible should they have to self-isolate.

That doesn’t mean extending self-isolation financial support for those on universal credit to students. It’s a demand to universities – the “robust” package of support, says Donelan, needs to include mental health and wellbeing support, daily communications and ensuring students have access to suitable free or affordable food:

I have found it concerning to hear reports of students having a bad experience when isolating and therefore not wanting to get tested to avoid having to do it again. I have also heard some fantastic examples and my department and UUK will be only too happy to share these.”

Finally, in January Donelan says that DfE will be continuing to receive information from Test and Trace on the number of tests undertaken, and will be asking institutions to use the OfS reporting tool to supplement this with information about the numbers of students who have reported that they have had a positive PCR in the last 90 days (and therefore do not require an LFD test or other approved tests); or who have instead undertaken alternative measures such as self-isolation in accordance with any new guidance.

That’s going to generate us a fascinating – and in many ways concerning – dataset on “attendance” at university in January. If nothing else universities’ success or otherwise in suggesting that students stagger their return will be revealed in data returns. Anyone would think that the December figures have been worryingly low:

Without these figures, there is a risk that low testing numbers may reduce confidence in the efficacy of measures to support the return of students at your university. I will be actively reviewing these figures and contacting institutions”

Hopefully the rest of us will be able to “actively review” these figures too.

Leave a Reply