UK universities putting finances above student safety, expert warns | Students
One of the UK’s top higher education experts has warned that by promising young people they can return to campuses this autumn, universities are putting their financial survival in the pandemic above the welfare of students, staff and local communities.
With less than two weeks to go until sixth-formers receive their teacher-assessed A-level grades, a clearer picture is starting to emerge of what they can expect when they arrive at university. Although almost all institutions are offering some face-to-face learning, it will be a very different university experience, with visitors and parties likely to be banned in many halls of residence.
However, Simon Marginson, professor of higher education at Oxford University, told the Guardian: “The current position will be very difficult to manage. Students want to be together and they will bend the rules. Eighteen-year-olds throw off constraints – it’s what they do.”
He warned: “There is inevitably going to be a surge somewhere triggered by a university. This is all very high risk for universities.” He predicted that parents could take legal action against a university if their child died of the virus while on campus.
On Wednesday a New York Times investigation revealed that there had been at least 6,600 cases of Covid-19 tied to 270 higher education colleges during the course of the pandemic in the US. It warned that numbers would escalate when universities reopened after the summer.
In a coruscating blogpost published by the Council for the Defence of British Universities, Marginson argues that universities have been forced to promise students something approaching a return to normal because “the government refuses to provide guarantees of funding and institutional survival” if students don’t turn up.
Marginson says that if some universities had chosen to buck the trend and stick to teaching online this autumn they would have risked a total collapse in enrolments – something none can afford because teaching funding now comes direct from student fees.
“If institutions go bankrupt because it is impossible to sustain themselves, [the government is suggesting] it is their fault, and this can be celebrated as a healthy cleansing by market forces,” he writes. “It is not far from celebrating death itself as a healthy cleansing and in a global pandemic that is too close to the bone.”
Marginson stresses that although Oxford is planning a return to face-to-face tutorials, he is not attacking his university, which like other institutions is simply “doing what the market says it has to do”.
The vice-chancellors’ group, Universities UK, denies that cash is being put before safety at any university. A spokesperson said: “Ensuring the health and safety of staff, students and the wider community is and always will be paramount to every UK university and all are following the relevant government and public health advice as an absolute minimum. This includes developing numerous ways to ensure in-person activities are safe and compliant with government and public health advice based on the current risk level.”
The spokesperson said all universities would have enhanced cleaning regimes and strict hygiene measures such as hand-sanitiser stations across campuses, as well as new one-way systems and clear markings to help social distancing. Sheffield University has said that as well as masks being required in any face-to-face classes, students would also be advised to wear face coverings around campus.
At Nottingham University students will be required to commit to a new Covid-19 “community pledge”, which sets out clear expectations on following guidance to reduce the spread of coronavirus. Students who break this pledge will face disciplinary action, fines and campus sanctions, says a spokesperson.
Nottingham is emphasising that as well as keeping each other safe, students will be expected to show respect to local neighbours, who will be placed at higher risk due to the influx of students. The university is considering increasing its £60,000 investment in Nottingham city council’s community protection officers to patrol the communities where students live and tackle antisocial behaviour.
Living in halls is likely to be very different, with many institutions, including Staffordshire University, considering putting students from the same course together in accommodation. Warwick University and University College London have said visitors will not be allowed in halls of residence. Cambridge University says on its website that visitors may be allowed in some halls, but this must be requested in advance and social distancing must be maintained. University College London has explicitly said that social gatherings and parties will be forbidden in halls, and experts say other institutions are likely to follow suit.
Manchester Metropolitan University has radically simplified its timetable so that instead of studying up to four different course units concurrently, students will just do one at a time to limit the number of course-mates and academics they come into contact with. And Worcester University has said it will schedule extra evening classes to avoid busy peaks on campus.
Smita Jamdar, head of education at the law firm Shakespeare Martineau, says that she has “absolutely no reason whatsoever to think that universities aren’t prioritising safety” at the heart of their plans for autumn. But she points out that institutions are being put under “competing pressures”.
“With its bailout package the government has put universities in a position where access to any accelerated payments is still reliant on recruiting students. Both consumer protection law and the sector regulators say that if they have promised students a face-to-face experience they need to see how close to that they can get,” she explains.
Jamdar says it is vital that universities are very clear with students when they arrive on campus exactly what will be expected of them.
“Young people as a group may not feel particularly vulnerable, but some students within that group will. If you live in a flat where everyone else is going out partying and you feel they are putting you at risk, what should you reasonably be entitled to expect the university to do about that?” she asks.
She adds: “Universities may also come under pressure to act from their local community. In a smaller place, the arrival of socially active students could be one of the largest potential super-spreading events that community will see.”
With the autumn term approaching, many academics are fearful about what the return to campus will mean for staff. Dr Eric Lybeck, presidential academic fellow in Manchester University’s Institute of Education, says: “I am not as worried about young students’ health. I think the bigger issue will be older staff and the local community. A professor may be over 60 and expected to teach seminars to asymptomatic super-spreaders.”
Lybeck shares Marginson’s concerns about the way the new market in higher education is affecting universities’ behaviour. “Universities are prioritising students as consumers, rather than as human beings who need to be safe,” he warns.
“Two million young people will soon be travelling back and forward across the country to go to university when they wouldn’t otherwise have to,” he adds. “If we’d thought about it and had a proper sector-wide discussion in time that could have been avoided, perhaps by temporarily linking students to their local universities instead.”
The University and College Union’s general secretary, Jo Grady, says: “Before universities can reopen safely we need to see much lower numbers of Covid-19 cases, a national plan for social distancing, comprehensive testing, university-wide strategies based on risk assessments and the protection of those most vulnerable to Covid-19.”