‘Illogical’ that campuses can’t fully reopen next week, says UUK

Organisation writes to Boris Johnson asking why shops and gyms can reopen but 1 million students can’t return

April 7, 2021
London, United Kingdom - November 13 2020 A student wearing a protective face mask walks past the LSE Old Building, London School of Economics and Political Science.
Source: iStock

It is “illogical” that shops, gyms and tourist attractions will reopen in England next week but 1 million students will remain unable to return to university campuses, vice-chancellors have said.

Universities UK has written to Boris Johnson seeking “urgent clarification” on the plan for a full return to face-to-face teaching after the prime minister left this out of the next easing of coronavirus restrictions, due to take place on 12 April.

President Julia Buckingham and chief executive Alistair Jarvis write that the list of sectors reopening next week – also including spas, zoos and hairdressers – is “extensive”, and that people will also be able to take self-catering holidays anywhere in England.

“It therefore seems illogical that students are not allowed to return to their self-catering accommodation and resume their studies in Covid-safe university facilities, particularly at this crucial time of the academic year,” the pair write. “This is another blow for those students who have been studying online since early December 2020.”

Currently, only students on practical and priority courses are receiving in-person tuition. Vice-chancellors had been pushing for students on all courses to be allowed to return to face-to-face teaching from 12 April, and the government had promised to give at least a week’s notice of any changes.

But updated guidance published after a government briefing on 5 April leaves the existing arrangements unchanged. Ministers had promised to give an update by the end of the Easter holidays, and some universities’ summer terms are due to start on 12 April. Others remain on a break until later in the month.

In the letter, Professor Buckingham and Mr Jarvis ask Mr Johnson to “confirm how and why the decision was taken to exclude higher education student returns from Step 2 of the road map, and to publish the government’s risk assessment underpinning this decision”, and to “address the current communications vacuum as a matter of urgency and publicly explain the government’s decision to students and parents, including information on when they expect students will be able to return”.

They ask what action the government will take to support student well-being, after research found that two-thirds of UK students said their mental health had worsened since the start of the academic year, and to support graduates’ employability, “as many will miss out on in-person career development activities planned by their university for the summer term”.

Universities, which estimate that as many as half of England’s 2.1 million higher education students are still being taught fully online, have expressed fears that the full reopening of campuses could be pushed back to mid-May or beyond.

This would coincide with the start of exam season, so students returning at that point would be unlikely to receive significant amounts of in-person teaching, although UUK said that most institutions planned activities and extended opening of some facilities “which will be available and of benefit to students even if they are unable to return until May”.

In the letter, Professor Buckingham and Mr Jarvis say that universities “have been cooperative and done everything we have been asked by government”, such as running asymptomatic testing sites and investing in infection control.

“Our staff have worked incredibly hard to keep students learning and progressing over the past year and our students have behaved responsibly and shown resilience during a period of great uncertainty. The UK government owes them a clear explanation about why decisions have been taken and how students and universities will be supported,” the pair write.

Unions have said courses should be taught online until the end of the academic year wherever possible to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

A Department for Education spokeswoman said that the government was “committed to getting all students back into university as soon as the public health situation allows”.

“We will be reviewing options for the timing of the return of all remaining students by the end of the Easter holidays. Decisions will take into account the need to protect progress across the wider road map out of the pandemic, including the spread of the virus in communities and pressures on the NHS,” she said.


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Reader's comments (5)

The issue for universities is that since Autumn 2020 the lockdown has been about protecting the staff since the majority of our students are in age groups where COVID-19 is a mild, if very infectious illness. Now that the majority of staff in vulnerable age groups have had the opportunity of vaccination it must be time for a general return to proper teaching and relegate "online teaching" to its useful role in learning support.
As a staff member in the "vulnerable" group, I agree wholeheartedly. The present arrangement is not living but a survival mode and we cannot continue in this state indefinitely. I actually think it is worse for students since (unless things have changed a lot since I was young) they usually go out more than people at my stage of life. This may well not be the last pandemic unless we change our way of life and we need an approach to deal with such things more effectively.
PS. Everything about this pandemic was predictable, see "The Psychology of Pandemics: Preparing for the Next Global Outbreak of Infectious Disease" by Steven Taylor, published in late 2019. The only thing in the book that does not map across is that it is a coronavirus and not influenza that was the worry before this current outbreak. We have been brought to our knees by a virus that kills a small percentage of those that catch it. I shudder to think what would happen if a virus with a >50% mortality rate arrived! This one should be a wake-up call.
Well a 2019 book was very prescient and as I see it the only issue that wasn't predictable is that it would trigger the most severe disease in older people, in contrast to the 1916 flu, which was most destructive in younger people. Unfortunately I also agree that there is an increased risk of such events, as "gain of function" research is still going on across the world. We can only hope that no one is doing it on smallpox. I know it was reported extinct in the wild, but I'm sure places like Porton Down keep a few vials for a rainy day. Anyway I still feel that we academics failed our students. I signed the Barrington Declaration and although I'm 70 and teach without pay, had offered to do face to face lectures in the Autumn if 2020. That was to no avail as the safety obsessed administration made it impossible. I'm ashamed that we who are supposedly the most "enlightened" part of our society should have bought into the fear and superstition.
It is true that the majority of staff is now supposed to have received at least their first dose of the vaccine. However, I see 4 issues: 1. Not all staff will have received their second dose and as a result they are *not* fully vaccinated. 2. This is not just about lecturers. There are lots of support staff as well as cleaners, catering staff and so on. What are the demographics of the latter? Are they old enough to have received both doses by now? Are they in any priority vulnerable group? No, unless they have certain underlying health conditions. 3. In younger groups, COVID tends to give milder symptoms, if any. This means that while we are still vaccinating the population, the virus can circulate freely in younger adults. The more it circulates, the higher risk of mutations. The more it mutates, the higher risk the vaccines are useless. 4. By reopening campuses, there will be an increase in use of public transportation; students going back to their families during the weekends or breaks... Essentially, more movement of people mingling here and there. Reopening campuses is a difficult decision and there are arguments pro and against it. From a public health point of view, it's probbaly safe to keep them closed or partially closed (some pratical lectures/sessions have been reopened, with students in smaller clusters). Perhaps instead of fully reopening them in one go, there could be a gradual reopening?


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