School’s out for summer.
A call to protect the least advantaged.
Unless some adjustment is made to move to contextual admission decisions by universities, then there will be many disappointed and angry students stuck for another year. Those that stored up most of their efforts till the summer examinations will pay a heavy price as the opportunity to improve is snatched from them. It is therefore essential that the government looks closely at the implications of the Sutton Trust in its recent research ‘Fairer School Admissions’ from 27th February 2020. It could not be timelier as the crisis drives a wider wedge between the advantaged and disadvantaged. The simple fact is that disadvantaged students are falling behind at an early stage. The Sutton Trust advocated adjustments to be made in entry requirements with ‘Admissions in Context’ in 2017. Now is the time for government and universities to step up and act in the interests of fairness. Failure to do this will store up many serious problems in the future.
University students adjust to stay in education.
All universities have moved to make some attempt at online teaching and asked their students to simply go away. Most will head home to their parents where they can expect support, private access to the internet and a desk. But a significant number will not have this luxury. Many will be estranged from parents as highlighted by the charity Stand Alone, and many more will have homes with few resources to study. Those that rely on part-time jobs will hang on as long as they can but will probably find that employment is elusive and gone at this time. Last week, TEFS looked at the impact on these students with ‘Impact of Coronavirus measures on the working student: The nudge that breaks the camel’s back’. By today, most university libraries and shared internet access facilities have been closed. Students who relied on this to study and complete assignments will be cut off if they cannot make alternative arrangements.
Again, it is stressed that universities must offer accommodation with internet access to all students that have no other option. Enhanced hardship funds are urgently needed to support students who find their job income gone. This is not an option but essential if any semblance of fairness is to survive.
A matter of trust.
Last week has seen the government mantra of four stages of ‘Containment, Delay, Research and Mitigate’ dissolve into near panic. The strategy was billed as being ‘led by the science’ and it is telling that it means that it was also not ‘led by the scientists’. This was reported as the position up to the first week of March (Independent 8th March 2020 ‘Coronavirus: What the government’s four stages to fight the disease mean’. ‘Mitigate’ assumed that up to 80% of the population would get the COVID-19 disease. However, many scientists were greatly disturbed and wanted to see the underlying data that led to this decision; but it was withheld. The simple fact is that the initial outbreak in China had shown that the infectivity ratio (R0) was around 2.4. The government had seen clear advice to this effect back on the 25th January in ‘Report 3: Transmissibility of 2019-nCoV’. This was a fairly high ratio and it meant that almost 60% of the population would need to become immune to reach protection from so-called ‘herd immunity’. This is a technical term in epidemiology and hitherto has referred to the target for vaccination of a population. It had not been used before in the context of a disease for which there is no vaccine. What the government failed to reveal from the ‘science’ advice that their strategy would see around 390,000 deaths to achieve herd immunity.
Once scientists started to reveal the consequences last week (this included the Chief Scientist in a media referring to ‘herd immunity’) the cat was out of the bag. Under immense pressure from various scientific bodies, including the British Society for Immunology, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) decided to reveal their data sources but said it could take weeks. By Monday, the latest 9th report of the Imperial College Group, ‘Report 9: ‘Impact of non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) to reduce COVID-19 mortality and healthcare demand’ was released. The government hid their embarrassment by saying this was new information and the strategy would change from ‘mitigation’ to ‘suppression’. This was not strictly ‘new’ knowledge and a major U-turn has been taken under considerable pressure. Whilst some of the data was indeed more recent from the outbreak in Italy, the underlying information was the same as it was back in January. The projections were still using infectivity rations (R0) close to the calculation from China.
Action finally getting underway properly today.
Finally, today the government released the data behind their decisions with ‘Coronavirus (COVID-19): scientific evidence supporting the UK government response’. Its makes for grim reading and a profound sense that this could have been made clear much earlier. Indeed, it is also clear that the evidence for transmissibility of the virus goes back to 25th January 2020. We should have acted much sooner when this information was first known. The economic impact is massive and could not have been avoided. But we could, and should, have been better prepared.
News today that employees will have their income protected in some way up to 80% also comes as very welcome to those most affected (BBC News today ‘Wages cover for businesses hit by virus outlined’). Students relying on their modest income to stay the course will need this help to arrive fast. Along with the fear of eviction and mortgage default being taken out of the equation earlier in the week, it seems people will rest easier this weekend. Hopefully, the help will come in time for the most disadvantaged to survive the crisis. It is late but welcome nevertheless.