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Students heading home for Christmas: Lucky for some

By today, all universities will hope to have told their students the arrangements they will have in place to allow them to go home in December. The Department for Education (DfE) finally caved in to calls for an early ‘test and disperse’ strategy as TEFS called it in September. It comes too late this term but just in time for Christmas. There is now a very short window of opportunity open and little time for universities to plan. Most universities will not have a mass testing system in place while others will have anticipated such a move. A problem lies in the DfE offering no support in terms of finance or coordination and have dropped all responsibility onto the shoulders of individual universities. Dispersal without testing will be risky and potentially dangerous. Decisions on risk will also filter down to individual students and their families. Additionally, universities are expected to support all students that are not able to go home, or have no home base, and provide financial assistance to an increasing number in distress despite a decline in government funds. 

The saying that Friday the 13th  is 'lucky for some' might ring true today as plans to ‘test and disperse’ students before Christmas are announced across campuses. Indeed, many students are in a fortunate position with continued family support and a comfortable home to return to. Many others will be in a much more precarious position fearing working from a home with little support away from the closed university facilities they relied upon. With unemployment rising, many families will struggle to mount any Christmas cheer and will no doubt be reassessing their commitments. 

The last TEFS posting on a Friday 13th was back in March with ‘Squashing the sombrero’. This infamous description of government policy from our prime minister rings a little hollow today as the full horror of its meaning has sunk in. 

However, although late, the government has finally seen sense and decided to ‘test and disperse’ students before Christmas. On Wednesday, the DfE issued its ‘Student movement and plans for the end of term’. This was accompanied by a lot of other guidance and is sandwiched between the current situation ‘Higher education: new national restrictions guidance’ and returning in the New Year ‘Higher education: reopening buildings and campuses’. TEFS called for this to happen back in September as mass student migration across the UK contributing to a large spike on COVID-19 cases looked very likely (see TEFS 25th September 2020 ‘Riders on the storm: Urgent action is needed or reset the clock’). That of course happened and students soon found themselves ‘locked’ in a variety of different accommodation types and subjected to online teaching they could have done from home. It has been a harsh lesson and an uncomfortable time for all concerned. 

Test and disperse. 

The essence of the current plan is to dovetail with the end of the current lockdown in England on the 2nd December. It seems the thinking is that there will be a window of opportunity to get students back home before it may become necessary to impose another lockdown. The seven-day window set by the government up to the 9th of December sounds very ominous in the light of this possibility. The reason given by the government is that “We have selected this date as the cut-off date for in-person learning to ensure that the last date students are required on campus allows enough time for students to complete self-isolation before Christmas, should they develop symptoms that day or be identified as a contact (of someone who has tested positive) by the tracing system”. 

Several universities have decided to close early for Christmas and trimmed courses back to an alarming extent online. Courses with essential face-to-face elements, such as practical classes are now out of the question. In some subjects, they have been asked to deliver the impossible. 

Universities UK responds. 

The response by the universities says it all very succinctly. This is the short, sharp, and complete response put out on Wednesday. 

“University students and staff will appreciate confirmation of the government's end-of-term plans for English universities, given the prolonged uncertainty they have faced this year. 

"With universities being asked to end in-person learning by 9 December, some students will now miss out on timetabled placements, practical classes and other in-person teaching near the end of term. Universities will need to work with students and government to manage the challenges this creates. 

"The government must now urgently turn its attention to working with the sector on plans to ensure students can safely resume their studies in person in January, supported by enhanced testing capability." 

The biggest challenge will be to deploy staff, facilities, and testing capacity to be delivered at very short notice. If this can be done it will be a success. Failure could help precipitate a serious Christmas lockdown with students blamed. 

A dilemma for most students. 

It seems testing will not be compulsory for students prior to leaving for home. If anyone in a group billeted together has a test that is positive, then it is assumed they will all stay where there are. The pressure on them forming a pact to avoid testing will be immense. However, the other side of the dilemma will be fear of taking COVID-19 home to vulnerable members of their family. The spread within the student population, often asymptomatic, makes this very likely. Universities and the government will be hoping they can get all of them tested by the 9th of December and away safely. But this target will probably be missed if arrangements are not already in place. 

Positive cooperation across the UK. 

It is obvious to all observers that any student dispersal order must be coordinated across each of the UK jurisdictions. One of the monumental failures of the current crisis has been the UK divisions opening and a resulting lack of coordination across the UK. It was always the case that considerable numbers of students would travel between the UK jurisdictions. The move in England this week now makes cooperation an urgent necessity, and something that should have happened earlier. 

It seems the DfE has thought of this, but only as a bolt-on to their own strategy for England. However, we can feel a little more positive about UK-wide cooperation when we hear that discussions are taking place across the UK with, “We are working closely with the Devolved Administrations and further advice for students will be provided shortly.” We wait for the outcome with anticipation. 

Financial stress and those who cannot go ‘home’. 

At least these problems are acknowledged, and Universities are under strict guidance to help such students. They will have to cover international students unable to travel home, those estranged from their families and those with no family other than the care system. That they exist has been widely recognised in the COVID-19 crisis and hopefully help for them will continue well after the crisis is over. On financial hardship, it seems the DfE expects universities to carry the main burden with, “Students experiencing financial hardship as a result of coronavirus (COVID-19) should contact their higher education provider. If a student’s financial situation has changed then they should contact the Student Loans Company as they may be eligible for a reassessment. Many universities and colleges also have specific funds, bursaries and scholarships available, including specifically for care leavers.” The Student Loan Company will be slow to respond if there is an sudden financial crisis. Yet the government has cut funds for hardship and turned its back on the most disadvantaged students(see (see TEFS 11th September 2020 ‘Government response to digital poverty, job losses, and student hardship: A £21 million cut to its support’). 

Students may decide to give up and suspend studies. 

This is a critical time for universities who must now fear their students will call it a day for this academic year. Along with private landlords and commercial providers, they will already be counting the cost of students asking for a refund on accommodation rental charges this term. There will also be increasing pressure on students to seek a way out if the situation is not improving. TEFS reported last week in ‘The state of UK universities in lockdown’ that there was rising unrest amongst many students. 

However, there was some glimmer of hope in the results of a survey of 1000 students released on Thursday by the private student accommodation enterprise ‘Unite Students’. Jenny Shaw​, Student Experience Director at Unite Students, reported in a post by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), ‘Different, but valuable’, that “Almost all (93%) say they are likely to continue their course, with only 2% saying it is unlikely”. The survey, ‘Experiences during the COVID-19 Pandemic – Student Survey November 2020’, covers a seven day period up to 6th November and is therefore well into the term and likely to be more valuable. It was carried out by the market survey company Opinium and included 840 undergraduates (488 in their first year) and 160 postgraduates. Opinium stresses that they have “confidence that the insights we pull from these groups are reflective of the wider population of these groups”. However, it is a small sample and the geographic spread, university type or accommodation type is not indicated. Two things might concern the observer. Firstly, Unite Students has a considerable vested interest in students paying for, and returning to, their accommodation, and the results might be affected by emphasis on students residing in the upmarket Unite facilities. However, if student confidence is high at this time, then it is hoped the early departure for Christmas relieves the pressure. 

This is a time of considerable uncertainty. The drift away from face-to-face teaching, and truncation of the term, means that university education is degrading fast this year. Hasty ‘test and disperse’ arrangements are unlikely to make this better and the return to universities in high numbers this autumn is now a failed experiment. Everyone is hoping students will hang in there and return to a better set up next term. Testing will be central to this working and this needs to be fully in place if students are to feel confident. Their continued engagement must not rely on many of them feeling they have little choice but to carry on. The uncertainties of the academic demands delivered remotely, mental health concerns and loss of finance may force the hands of some students and they surely deserve better.

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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