What has the Covid inquiry been saying about universities and students?

We haven’t really heard much about higher education so far in the Covid Inquiry.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

That’s probably because we’re promised a later module on “Education, children and young persons” – although you can’t help but assume that like in the material so far, the “big schools” thing will see HE treated as a bit of an afterthought.

In Gavin Williamson’s witness statement for example, other than reminding readers that he was notionally responsible for HE, you may not be surprised to learn that the Secretary of State for Education’s witness statement manages to mention universities and students precisely 0 times.

That afterthought thing pops up a few times in witness statements. Then Deputy PM Dominic Raab uses his final paragraph to speculate on whether more could have been done to mitigate the impact of Covid on young people “from primary school through to university”, including whether the exam system could have been handled better:

The younger generation felt that they could brush off Covid more easily and that they were paying a disproportionate price for the extra caution required for the rest of the population. I feel empathy for the university students who were paying for an education they were not receiving, and felt we could have done better for those who were not able to sit exams.

Similarly Ed Lister, who was briefly the Downing Street Chief of Staff at the end of 2020 once Cummings had been ejected, appears to have been worried:

It is also vitally important to remember what happened in higher education establishments, particularly universities, which suffered from either no teaching whatsoever or remote teaching with students being prevented from travelling and being stuck in halls of residence very far from home, with little support.

You’ll recall that chaos around the opening of schools in early January 2021 – Michael Gove’s evidence confirms that the decision to scale back students’ return to university campuses was taken at the second of two “Covid-O” meetings on the evening of December 29 2020:

At a further Covid-O meeting that evening there was a Covid-O to discuss whether to delay the return of schools and universities. It was agreed at that stage that there should be some delay in the return of secondary schools and a reduced return for universities. For primary schools every effort should be made to get children back.

Boris Johnson’s evidence suggests that the meeting was dominated by the schools issue – with the decision to scale back the return of students “to around 20 per cent of the cohort as proposed” taken at the end. It’s hard to imagine that anyone gave a thought to the implications for student accommodation at that point.

You’ll also recall that daft “student travel corridor” thing that was seemingly designed to pack trains out with students returning home for Christmas in 2020. We noted at the time that the four nations were having trouble agreeing an approach in the October – and it turns out we were right. Gove:

There was also discussion about how returning home for Christmas would work for students in higher education. The proposals were not fully worked up at this stage and there were different considerations identified for each of the four home nations. I asked for a more developed proposal for the higher education Christmas plan to be considered in due course and noted that the unique nature of the individual nations’ higher education systems along with mental health impacts be considered in developing the proposal.

We already knew that SAGE was consulted very late on in the Summer of 2020 about students’ return to campus. We also now know via Jennie Harries’ evidence (then Deputy Chief Medical Officer) that moving to “fully online” teaching was advised almost as soon as Freshers’ Week had begun – on 21 September, while some students were still moving in:

The shortlist of non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPis) 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 a/l 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 (for example hairdressers); all university and college teaching to be online unless face-to-face teaching is absolutely essential.

Sajid Javid (Health Secretary) fails to mention students at all – it’s left to Ian Diamond’s evidence (former Principal of the University of Aberdeen and boss at the Office for National Statistics during Covid) to lay out some of the mental health and academic impacts on students that ONS researched at the time:

  • More than half reported a worsening in their mental health and well-being between the beginning of the 2020 autumn term and November 2020 – by January 2021 this had increased to 7 in 10
  • By January 2021, 45 per cent of students reported being dissatisfied with their academic experience in the autumn term
  • By late February 2021, 31 per cent of students reported feeling lonely often or always, compared with 8 per cent of the adult population in Great Britain over a similar period
  • In early May 2021, half of students said that the pandemic had a major or significant impact on their academic performance – and by June 2021, this had increased to 61 per cent

I know, I know, everyone had it bad. But they were made to pay for this – or rather, in most cases, they’ll be paying for the rest of their lives for it. Hopefully, when a module comes along that gets into the detail, we’ll find a way to avoid that kind of injustice if there’s a next time.

One response to “What has the Covid inquiry been saying about universities and students?

  1. Thank you for this summary.

    Just one typo “More than half reported a worsening in their mental health and well-being between the beginning of the 2020 autumn term and November 2020 – by January 2021 this had increased to 1 in 7” – “1 in 7” should read “68%” or “almost 70%”

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