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COVID-19, SAGE and the universities ‘document dump’

The recent release of several documents by SAGE all at once was described by one observer as a “dump of docs”. They relate to returning to education this autumn and are somewhat confusing as they illustrate the complexities of the challenges still to be tackled. But there is much not fully addressed. Outbreaks of COVID-19 at universities spilling into local communities might also trigger city-wide lock-downs and a bad reaction from the locals. The mass migration of students to their hometowns will spread the chaos wider afield as there seems to be little evidence of planning for this inevitability. Less advantaged students in poor accommodation or crowded homes will be at greater risk along with their vulnerable peers coping with health conditions. While students may be asked to ‘segment’ or form ‘bubbles’ staff might not have the same protection. Asking vulnerable lecturers and other staff with ongoing health conditions to move from classroom to classroom, contacting different groups of students on a daily basis, could lead to their ultimate demise. Yet this statement hiding in the reports illustrates the apparent lack of planning “We note that the commission does not cover testing and monitoring, or response planning in universities. It is essential that universities have clear protocols in place for reactive closures and/or quarantines”. There is no evidence that the pressing need for a UK wide coordination between universities and local authorities is being planned to address the inevitable crisis to come. 

On Friday, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) released more updates relating to the safety of reopening Universities, Colleges and Schools. This included documents that go some way to explain the complexity facing all ‘education providers’. 

Bonfire of the acronyms: Are you confused? 

If you are confused by the latest offerings, then you are not the only one. Firstly, there is the obvious publication of papers from the 8th July 2020 on 24th July 2020 with the caveat on each of them that “Some of the information in this paper may have been superseded and the author’s opinion or conclusion may since have developed.” As we say in Edinburgh ‘Aye,right!’

One question immediately springs to mind. What is the ‘DfE Commission’ that is noted? But it seems this is not what it first appears to be. It simply means that the DfE ‘commissioned’ SPI-M (Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (SPI-M) who provide models and calculations of R. See SPI-M-O: Consensus Statement on COVID-19 Date: 8th July 2020) to answer some pertinent questions. The answers to some of these are in Annex B with the advice “This note is provided to SAGE to form part of the response to a commission from the Department for Education. It should be read in conjunction with the main paper from the Children’s Task and Finish Group (TFC)”. Why have one document when two will suffice? But another caveat appears “Redactions within Annex B have been made to remove any security markings”. This could mean that the definitions of the acronyms were removed to confound us. 

Jim Dickinson of WONKHE clears some of the fog and provided a valuable analysis yesterday with ‘Universities get some SAGE advice on reopening campuses’. His conclusion is a sound one on the evidence to date “Surely we aren’t hurtling into September – a sector of this size with this number of people – hoping for the best?” It seems that it is already a runaway train heading for the buffers. 

Signs of nervous confidence. 

The SAGE report ‘SAGE paper on further and higher education (Updated) - 21 July 2020’ seems to exude some confidence about universities with “Universities have already undertaken significant planning about their approach to delivering teaching and learning in the coming year as they plan to welcome students back in the Autumn term based on a blend of online and face to face learning”. Indeed, I know former colleagues are working long hours over the summer to make this happen. However, there are concerns that “they may also need to respond to a renewed regional lockdown and/ or an outbreak within the university”. This is where most of the uncertainties and confusions begin to degrade the plans. 

A lot of what is outlined fits with the stated main government objective “The Prime Minister and the Secretary of State have decided that all education settings should be able to welcome all students back, in person, in September”. However, a series of pitfalls quickly emerge. 

Amongst coping with libraries, accommodation, social events and segmenting students (the term ‘bubbles’ is not favoured) in different years and class groups, the overarching problem of “A significant movement of over 1 million students across the country, with potential impact on the transmission of the virus, at the beginning and end of terms” is added. This is where the separate report from the TFC begins to introduce significant doubts and generates a confused maze for universities to navigate. The main confusion seems to arise from consideration of schools and universities in the same document ‘TFC subgroup of SPI-M-O: Comments on schools and universities: Response to DfE commission’. Any academic would quickly conclude that schools and universities are very different operations in terms of scale and potential for the spread of Coronavirus around the whole of the UK. Thus, a basic strategy would be to consider them separately. At least make them separate chapters in the same thesis. 

The “Dump of Docs.” 

Instead, SAGE has pushed out a series of documents at the same time. University managements will be trying to make sense of the warnings therein. The somewhat irreverent description by Dickinson is well founded we he notes that there seems to have been little consultation with important ‘stakeholders’. He observed that “The revelations in this dump of docs certainly don’t appear to meet the tests on student and staff input. It’s almost as if we need to specifically avoid transparency over these safety machinations in case it puts off applications”. Also, he says the “needs of the most vulnerable should take priority doesn’t get much of a look in here either”. These are two obvious and glaring gaps in what is emerging as we head into August and the ‘clearing’ cycle. 

A two-tier system operates. 

The notion that there is a two-tier system in Higher Education in the UK was deeply entrenched before the COVID-19 crisis (TEFS 15th June 2019 'Student Living Index 2019: Hiding a two-tier ‘student experience’ in the UK'). Well supported students have more time to study and readily join clubs and other groups. They build networks that enhance their careers. Others serve them in the bars and restaurants and have less time to study. They return to their cheap and rundown private accommodation, or endure a long commute, and are somewhat detached from the notion of a ‘typical’ university experience. They hold down jobs during the term and are exhausted most of the time ( See TEFS 5th June 2020 'Blind spot about student finances cruelly exposed by COVID-19 crisis'). The lock-down removed access to library facilities that they needed due to poor access to the internet at their home or in their student accommodation. The reports show no sign of acknowledging that some students will be more exposed to the dangers than others. It is yet again another sign of the ‘blind spot’ (see TEFS 16th June 2020 ‘University student part-time working is a dangerous blind spot’).

The shock to the system exposed cruel inequalities.

COVID-19 was a shock to the system that revealed the precarious existence of many students. University managements soon had to cope with the impact of closing facilities such as libraries and isolating less advantaged students from the ‘learning environment’ they relied upon. They did not have the data they needed to plan for the increasing numbers needing help (see my article in the Guardian 16th June 2020 ‘University students who work part-time need support – or they will drop out’). This chasm in equality and opportunity has not been filled. Instead, it will rapidly widen as we enter another academic year. The first wedge will emerge in the scramble for university places at the ‘elite’ institutions during clearing when the most advantaged will gain the upper hand. 

The reports noted above tend to focus on university accommodation. However, this is only one part of what is available to students based on their ability to pay. There is a very wide spectrum of accommodation types. Recent years have seen the rise of high spec student rooms and flats in both the private sector and the universities. The top tier of students reside in flats that their parents invested in earlier or in very well-appointed residences. Most universities released these better off students from accommodation costs as a result of the COVID-19 lock-down when they returned home. They were joined by their friends in lesser student rooms in halls that were still too expensive for some. Many in private rental flats and multiple use houses are not so fortunate. The second tier are left with very cheap flats that are often sub-standard. Many are in crowded multiple occupancy houses. Some cannot even afford this and have to commute from even lower cost distant flats or from their family homes. For some, going ‘home’ is not an option and they are close to the homeless line most of the time. A lock-down becomes a nightmare of fear and disadvantage for some students. Then they found they were stung by their landlords seeking full payment. The most advantaged became better off whilst the least advantaged suffered a greater loss (See ‘Landlord Today’ from 26th May 2020 ‘Student landlords threaten legal action over non-payment of rent‘.

Accommodation, travel and spreading fear in the community. 

The TFC report and Annex issued a clear warning to the government and universities alike about the catastrophic potential of the impending mass migration of students. It will spread the virus alongside fear and suspicion of students as they arrive in the areas surrounding the campuses. Just imagine for one moment what the local population of a city will do if there is a city-wide lock-down triggered by students spreading the virus from elsewhere in the UK. For example, students from England arriving in Scotland, Wales, or Northern Ireland. But then the wider problem encompasses both inward migration to campuses and the more alarming homeward movement of students in the event of local lock-downs. This is not a matter of conjecture. It will happen and universities must plan for coping with this. Planning and communication with local authorities in their area will need to supplemented with information offered to areas where the students come from. All local authorities will need a central communication hub to receive information from universities in their own areas and from universities where students are returning from. 

It seems obvious that a central planning scheme across all institutions should be set up with considerable haste. I say this because the TFC report clearly warns against “students returning home after falling ill or being diagnosed with COVID-19 to avoid having to quarantine alone” and “The potential for ‘spillover’ into the local community during term-term”. Yet the conclusion is that “Although institution-specific data and analysis is of most interest, further centralised information on the sector would be helpful” 

As we enter August, the observation that “Further work on testing and monitoring, and outbreak response should be a higher priority” may already be too late. It is nothing short of astounding that the response to the DfE is “It is essential that universities have clear protocols in place for reactive closures and/or quarantines”. Someone should pull their finger out before it gets badly burned. The saving grace is that most universities will have thought of this but don’t want to tell anyone until they are sure of their student numbers. 

Infection dynamics and networks in universities. Who is most vulnerable? 

Clearly university staff will find themselves in the front line as the most vulnerable. Many are older with underlying heath conditions. The semantics in the reports about ‘segmenting students’ or student ‘bubbles’ are redundant for them as they often deal with one ‘bubble/segment’ from one year group before moving into contact with another ‘bubble/segment’ later the same day and so on. Then add vulnerable students with disabilities and/or adverse health conditions meeting their multiply exposed lecturers and the potential for a tragedy is very real. It would not be unusual for an older lecturer with asthma, diabetes or recovering from cancer treatment to find a few students with similar conditions. 

The multiple risks will focus the minds of those who are most vulnerable and who might find they are put at a terrible disadvantage as the rest plough on regardless. These could be described as the “asymptomatic fraction and relative infectivity of asymptomatic cases in young adults”. Effective education of staff, students and management will lie at the core of reducing the risks posed by them. 

What all lecturers in universities know.

It confirms what every university lecturer already knows and will now fear. Teaching any sized class of students, and going from one room to another, means that you are likely to catch everything that the diverse range of students bring into the lecture rooms and laboratory classes. Other human Coronaviruses that cause common cold symptoms are circulating all the time and they thrive in the university environment. The worry is that the Bonny et al paper showed that one such type of Coronavirus survives on surfaces in university rooms for over seven days. Who is going to clean every room immediately after use? 

In the past, lecturers were resigned to this risk that goes along with the job. Indeed, because of strict and immovable timetabling arrangements, most lecturers soldier on through the symptoms of a cold as do some students. Jim Dickinson of WONKHE is right to raise the obvious point that there is no student or staff input. Indeed, it might be that those making decisions fail to fully grasp the inevitability of the coming outbreaks around university campuses, despite attempts at mitigation measures. The confusion surrounding the decision by the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State that “all education settings should be able to welcome all students back, in person, in September” is obvious. They decided with no experience of teaching in a university and without checking first. The reports discussed here are proof of that. The main casualties will be staff with little choice but to put themselves into danger when students will not be able to isolate themselves easily. The gap between rich and poor will also widen further and there is no evidence of the government giving any thought to this.

Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics. He has served on the Senate and Finance and planning committee of a Russell Group University.


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