What really happened with return to campus?

If there’s no scientific basis for the decision - and it’s been hugely unpopular - why did the Westminster government make the decision that it did on return to campus this week?

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

On the Wonkhe Show this week we speculate on the political reasons that might have underpinned the decision, and the standing of universities in the big government departments – which is a worry in the run up to a major spending review.

Other explanations are available. The New Power University author Jonathan Grant reckons it all says more about universities than it does about government:

This crisis has exposed the lack of political capital of universities but also their lack of political nous.”

But what if there really is some science behind it all?

The “Donelan defence” in parliament (and later in the press) was all focussed on migration:

Throughout the pandemic, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies has warned of the risk posed by the mass movement of students, especially given that they form new households.

Since that line references SAGE advice, I’ve looked again in some detail at what SAGE actually said on return to campus in January – and specifically at this Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours (SPI-B) paper on return to campus for the spring term and the risk of increased transmission from student migration.

As ever with SAGE advice, it hedges on the basis of what the government would need to do depending on the choices it makes. Set aside the clumsy “open” and “closed” language here, and here were the conditionals:

If university students currently engaging in purely online learning are to return to campus in the spring, additional information is needed to encourage and support the uptake of testing and increased health-protective behaviours, and to identify the impact of student behaviours on the wider community.

If universities are to remain closed to most face-to-face teaching beyond the spring, consideration must be given to the short, medium, and long-term risks to and impacts on students.

On this basis, the questions we need to ask are as follows. Did the things that SAGE’s SPI-B say needed to be done that would enable “reopening” get attempted? If not, students and the sector might reasonably say “you’ve let us down”. And now that the decision has been so heavily delayed, the other question is – did the things that it said needed to be done to mitigate the risks of remaining closed get done or attempted? If not, students and the sector might again reasonably say “you’ve let us down”.

One of the conclusions in the paper on enabling reopening was that quantitative and qualitative work was needed urgently to identify the most common approaches to and requirements for testing and other interventions in universities. There was some research from a trial at the Norwich Research Park (which barely any students took part in) but amazingly a paper from January 13th didn’t include reference to the massive exercise undertaken pre-Christmas. That would have been a good chance to understand the “acceptability of universal, asymptomatic testing of staff and students in universities” and to get at “broader, more diverse student and staff populations, and focus on student perceptions, experience, and responses”, but this week DHSC told me they didn’t even know how many of the tests that had been carried out in that exercise were taken by students!

So last term we rolled it out anyway, and participation levels in on-campus testing were abysmal. So this one’s a fail.

Next, SPI-B said that if you’re going to reopen, HE institutions should put in place strategies to support students who are required to isolate to promote adherence to testing and isolation, including “by providing dedicated accommodation where it is feasible to do so to minimise ongoing transmission in halls of residence or shared housing”. And it also said that rates of self-isolation following a positive test would be improved with the addition of a package of six different forms of support, including financial support, proactive outreach, tangible, non-financial support, information, educational support and emotional support.

Now while Michelle Donelan often says she’s asked universities to support students who are self-isolating, she must know they can’t really afford the above. And a Treasury that prefers to spend tens of billions on Operation Moonshot than it does helping those on low incomes to self-isolate was never going to make the money available to put the package in place that SPI-B said was needed. So this one’s a fail too.

The stuff about halls is in the paper:

Universities expose young people to very large numbers of social contacts… more likely to live in all-adult, crowded, multi-occupancy housing often with poor ventilation which may further contribute to rapid transmission… the risk of transmission greater in residential settings such as halls and student houses… minimal evidence of the virus being spread in face-to-face teaching settings such as classrooms and lecture theatres.

To get around that, SPI-B said that strategies to mitigate transmission risk include segmentation of students to co-locate courses or year groups, and good communication on behaviour and hygiene in household and social environments. That’s the sort of recommendation (bubbles) that doesn’t survive contact with the real world – so let’s not mark DfE down for that, but let’s not mark it up either.

The paper does remind us that in many respects, student behaviour may be less risky than that of other adults. ONS data found that students reported that they were more likely not to have left their residence in the past seven days prior to being surveyed and also had students reporting high levels of adherence to social distancing (2 meters), hand washing, and a decrease in inviting others over.

What it did say was that behaviours identified through a Hazard Analysis of Critical Control Points (HACCP) framework assessed the risks associated with university student activity and identified key critical control points for on and off-campus university student’s activities, lifestyle and interaction patterns. It said that approach would identify behaviours that were likely to present direct and indirect risks for the transmission of Covid, and that each point provided an opportunity to identify and adopt measures to reduce transmission risks for students who are currently on campus, and students who will return when the infection rates decrease.

They were:

  1. Preventing arrival of virus into the student household
  2. Shared car/minibus journey (including shared transport to placements, sporting events, field courses, social events, etc.)
  3. Returning to university household after time (overnight) away
  4. Interaction with people beyond university household (this includes the students having different placement groups to their household members)
  5. Sharing of personal items
  6. Indoor queuing/crowding
  7. Sharing of study facilities
  8. Outdoor queuing
  9. Sharing of prayer facilities
  10. Sharing of changing facilities
  11. Sharing training/practice facilities
  12. Singing/Cheering
  13. Participation in conferences, meetings, etc.
  14. Sharing accommodation on field courses
  15. Examining patients (High-Low depending on use of PPE)
  16. Remaining within one room whilst on placement
  17. Moving around within buildings
  18. Sessions in teaching rooms
  19. Working in a group
  20. Seating in teaching rooms
  21. Undertaking physical exams such as OSCEs/consultation skills/physical manipulation
  22. Provision of ad hoc in-person support (e.g. advisors, last minute support)

But we’ve not seen anything on that list from DfE other than “just don’t be on campus at all unless you’re being taught”. In other words, it was much easier to just say “ah leave them at home unless we need them to graduate into the NHS or will sue their uni for not having access to the studio” than it was to support universities (not least with some money) to make return to campus safe from multiple perspectives. So this one’s a fail too.

And so on the decision instead to remain “closed”, the paper warns that disruption and closure carry mental and physical health costs for university students – and while individuals under 25 years of age are least in danger from the virus, they stand to disproportionately shoulder the most significant long-term burden as a result of the efforts to control the virus:

These dis-benefits/disadvantages include reduced education, reduced employment opportunities, living longer with degraded quality public services that in turn includes education that is likely to be highly resource-restricted in the near future”.

To address this, it said:

The mental health impacts of COVID-19 on university students is evident. University counselling and support services struggled to meet rising demand prior to COVID-19. Universities will need to support in addressing the impacts of COVID-19 on the mental health and well-being of their student population. Consideration of extending this support beyond graduation is needed.

But other than finger wagging, DfE hasn’t supported universities to meet rising demand at all. It just keeps telling us about Student Space and £15m coming next year. So this one’s also a fail.

The evidence-base surrounding the impact of Covid-19 on HE student mental health, wellbeing, and course satisfaction is growing. Additional information is needed in the areas of educational impacts (i.e. lost learning) and the longer-term impacts of disrupted education on graduate study and employment.

We’ve not heard DfE ministers even countenance the idea that there’s been a hint of any learning loss, and barely any real recognition of the graduate jobs market students are about to be dumped into. So this one’s a fail.

Evidence of the Covid-19 related health, mental health, well-being, and job satisfaction impacts on university staff must be explored. Staff play a fundamental role in supporting students, delivering education, maintaining safe environments, and mitigating the impacts of Covid-19 on the student population.”

Support for university staff? Not a peep. So this one’s a fail too.

So yes – the government has indeed followed the science when making its return to campus decision. But only insofar as it sidelined or ignored complicated or expensive advice on getting everyone back, and is now sidelining or ignoring complicated or expensive advice on mitigating the impacts of that previous clutch of colossal failures.

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