Return to campus: how universities are approaching this difficult decision

Universities are beginning to announce how they will teach students from September, but how do universities devise working practices for diverse and busy campuses?

Universities are weighing up a return to campus – but is the government guidance clear enough to do that safely?

Dr Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU), does not think so. She told the education select committee on Monday 18 May that, without clear government guidelines for the whole sector, inter-institutional competition could spark a race to re-start face-to-face teaching in the autumn term.

Even if student recruitment becomes tough in the coming months, the chief executive of the Office for Students (OfS) told MPs that universities should offer “absolute clarity” about the amount of on-site learning they will offer students.

OfS chief Nicola Dandridge added universities should not promise “campus experiences” if it was not realistic to do so. 

Long before the coronavirus pandemic, the OfS had been clamping down on what it describes as misleading marketing, and its chief executive has frequently reminded universities to advertise their courses and campuses accurately. In an interview on Today on Wednesday 20 May, Ms Dandridge said that, in the light of announcements from the universities of Cambridge and Manchester, she expected it to become “increasingly clear over the next two weeks” how much learning this autumn will be on campus. 

“We are asking all universities to make it very clear, certainly by the time students make decisions about where to go, about what it is they’ll be going to,” Ms Dandridge told the Radio Four programme.

“It’s looking increasingly likely that it will be a sophisticated blend of online lectures and face-to-face teaching,” she added. 

So far, several universities have published their plans for the 2020/21 academic year. 

The University of Cambridge will halt face-to-face lectures and replace them with online provision for the entire year – it also hopes to offer some face-to-face tutorials, if they can be conducted safely and within the government’s guidelines. Similarly, the University of Manchester will also cancel lectures for the first term but plans to offer students some face-to-face contact time. 

Nottingham Trent’s vice-chancellor, Prof Edward Peck, confirmed the university’s intention to reopen its campuses in September in a statement on 19 May. Prof Peck admitted “much of the detail is being worked through” but assured students that NTU will offer “a mixture of on-campus, in-class teaching alongside online learning” from the beginning of the next academic year. He added that all students will have the opportunity to undertake work experience, volunteering and “a host of extra-curricular opportunities”.

University of Bolton to re-open campus for all students in September
The University of Bolton has announced ambitious plans to re-open its campus this September.

Bolton University has the most ambitious plan to resume campus life. With the use of airport-style walk-through temperature scanners, timetable changes, building schedules and face coverings, Bolton’s vice-chancellor Prof George Holmes reassured students and applicants they would be “able to study and engage in person regularly with other students and staff” on the “Covid-secure” and “fully operational” university campus.

The UCU already feels universities did not shut up shop promptly at the beginning of the pandemic, and it has concerns that competition between providers might encourage bad practices. The union wants universities to consider if reopening campuses is both safe and necessary – and it wants providers to engage with local branches in decision-making processes. It also wants the government to financially underwrite the sector to relieve pressure on universities to recruit and compete. 

Speaking to University Business, Dr Grady said the recent announcements from Cambridge and Bolton universities had heightened her concerns.

“We have now seen a few universities set out plans for the next academic year and there is no consistency. This only adds to the confusion for students and staff, and does not suggest their health and safety is the top priority. Unfortunately, we warned this would happen if the government refused to encourage more effective coordination and provide financial support. 

“Universities are worried about the loss of income and students being poached by other institutions. The government needs to step in and underwrite income lost through fees and teaching grants and, in response, universities must promise to work together on plans for safely reopening and when to recommence face-to-face teaching,” she said. 

The government needs to step in and underwrite income lost through fees and teaching grants and, in response, universities must promise to work together on plans for safely reopening and when to recommence face-to-face teaching
– Jo Grady, UCU

The UCU general secretary added that, without “decisive action” from government, the sector risked “an unseemly scramble for students” in the summer.

“Before universities can reopen we need to see much lower numbers of Covid-19 cases, a national plan for social distancing and comprehensive testing. We can’t simply promise to go back to business as usual. Any plans must also extend beyond the lecture theatre and explain how universities will deal with things like peak times, narrow corridors and socialising,” she added.

Return to campus: how are universities approaching this difficult decision
One student posted on The Student Room that they would defer their university place if they couldn’t live in halls next year.

A survey by YouthSight on behalf of the UCU suggests as many as one in five students will defer their places next year if the majority of learning is undertaken online. The Student Room has reported a high number of users discussing their plans, with one student commenting: “I’m due to start uni this September but I’m now seriously considering taking a gap year due to the whole coronavirus situation. I just won’t be doing it if things like freshers’ week, moving into dorms etc are all cancelled, because to be honest that’s all a huge part of university that I don’t wanna miss out on.”

Ms Dandridge’s latest comments on offering students “absolute clarity” are not out of step with her previous utterances, but the on-going OfS consultation – which seeks to empower the watchdog with additional regulatory powers – could change her tone in the coming months. The OfS has warned providers not to engage in practices that risk undermining the sustainability of the entire sector. 

Smita Jamdar, a partner at law firm Shakespeare Martineau, told University Business that universities would need to plan a return to campus carefully, but added: “I think Nicola Dandridge’s comments on Monday about having absolute certainty about what you’re offering in September were probably unrealistic.”

Managing a return to campus was important in light of the new OfS consultation, Ms Jamdar added, because a decision to re-open could be seen in the light of the effect it has on the rest of the sector.

“I was advising an institution about its plans to deal with the return in September. They were dealing with questions of which courses to move wholly online and which courses to try and keep some face-to-face teaching. Inevitably, when you’re in any legal situation, you have to take a risk-based response and universities now need to start thinking, am I destabilising or affecting the integrity of the higher education system by doing this?”

She said universities unveiling ambitious plans to return to campus must be certain “they are going to be able to get everything up and running”. 

“If a university makes a hash of return to study in September – not because they’ve done anything sinister but because it was too complicated to be workable – we don’t yet know what view the OfS might take on that. Would that be deemed to have had a destabilising effect on the sector? We just don’t know.” 

Return to campus: how are universities approaching this difficult decision 1
Students with a large amount of hands-on learning in their degrees are likely to be most affected but estates’ teams are devising way to safely modify facilities with perspex screens.

“Universities are very mindful of their responsibilities under consumer protection law – they have offered courses in a particular way, but they know they’re going to have to make some changes. The discussion, therefore, has been about what and how should we be communicating with students. If you’ve got practical courses, the impact is going to be a lot higher. If you’ve got students with disabilities, then you have to make sure that whatever you put in place can be accessed by them. I think universities are also very worried about the ongoing uncertainty because we don’t know what stages of lockdown might look like.”

While UCU might be calling for sector-wide guidance, Ms Jamdar cautioned against relying on “generic” guidelines drawn up by mandarins in Whitehall. 

“I would rather see that guidance coming from people who understand the sector really, really well,” she proposed. “We’ve got organisations like the University Health and Safety Association (USHA) to refer to, and within universities some of the leading experts on how to manage public health emergencies. It would be nicer if the sector could work together to come up with some guidance of its own.”

If a university makes a hash of return to study in September – not because they’ve done anything sinister but because it was too complicated to be workable – we don’t yet know what view the OfS might take on that. Would that be deemed to have had a destabilising effect on the sector? We just don’t know.
– Smita Jamdar, Shakespeare Martineau

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi), says universities have remained physical institutions of learning for many years precisely because they value the importance of that to students.

“They are physical institutions – if they wanted to be a distance learning provider, they would be the Open University. They made a decision to bring students together to learn. Students and staff want to be together with other learners.”

Mr Hillman said the directors of teaching and learning that he has spoken to have bold plans for how to marry some limited campus experiences with a largely online-led learning offer next year. He does not predict that this crisis will negatively impact the residential student model.

One university staff member said it was impossible to yet predict what decisions students might make.

Planning for a return to campus is undoubtedly hindered by the as-yet-unknown element in the equation – how many students will defer. The University of Manchester has modelled for international student enrolments to fall by 80% and domestic/EU enrolments to fall by 20%. University Business has learned that one post-’92 university has modelled for as many as 60% of its normal intake to defer. 

One source told University Business that their university is in the early stages of planning a return to campus, but that anticipating human behaviour in September made strategising infinitely more complex. They described planning as like trying to second guess “a 1,000 people, who will make a 1,000 different decisions”. 

This large, research-intensive university is busy discussing with public transport operators how students who live off-campus could use the network safely. The source continued: “Blended learning is likely to be the compromise position for us and most other universities.”

Working hours may need to be staggered, or stretched over a seven-day working week, to make social distancing feasible for a student body of more than 10,000. Finding a solution that will please all students is unlikely.

“Students will question the value of being on campus if they’re only doing a few hours a week,” the source commented, which then raises the prospect that more undergraduates could choose to commute instead. The university in question is hoping to deliver “some face-to-face teaching as normal from October”, but the source added that deciding how to ensure student halls met social distancing guidelines was the biggest challenge ahead of the estates team.

The precedent was set earlier this year when university-owned halls issued third-term refunds to students. If students are not able to take up their places in halls full-time, or even at all, universities might well find that revenue source dries up. Will students with more contact time be offered first dibs on the new socially-distanced halls?

One university estates’ director explained how he and his team are analysing how every single building is used to understand what activities could be scaled back when term resumes in September.

Stephen Wells – director of estates at the University of Surrey and chair of the Association of University Director of Estates (AUDE) – explained to University Business the challenge teams like his face because of the complex nature of university operations.

In Surrey’s case, Mr Wells explained that his team are prioritising the return of some specific research operations – particularly those that use wet labs – and would use this experience as a testbed for how to achieve a larger-scale return to campus.

Mr Wells said lots of information and guidance was available, but it was “in lots of very different places”, so universities had to compare and contrast the relevant, but often different, pieces of advice that cover the diverse range of operations on campus.

Universities needed to be mindful of how labs, offices, student halls, shops, libraries, seminar rooms, toilets, car parks, students’ unions, buses, sports facilities, cafes, car parks, cycle racks and welcome desks can be made safe. The work of lecturers, grounds staff, security guards and lab technicians will each present its unique challenge, and senior leaders will need to develop complex matrixes to devise how they can work safely. 

Reintroducing students – whether they’re studying online or onsite – will require similar and exhaustive risk assessments.

Every single estates director I’ve spoken to is having robust pragmatic conversations with health and safety teams, academics and senior leaders about what can be achieved within the current guidelines
– Stephen Wells, AUDE

“Space could be freed up if more staff worked from home,” Mr Wells continued, “which could allow universities to use their estates to maximise student and staff face-to-face contact time.”

In common with other AUDE members, Mr Wells said his team at Surrey are prioritising creating flexible spaces which can adapt and change to the requirements of the university through the year. Estates teams would need to work closely with teaching and learning teams to understand which parts of the student timetable must be carried out on site, he added. 

“We need to look at the use of face masks, for example. The media refers to face masks as PPE, but not all the masks people wear are PPE. So there are nuances there to bridge, and we need a really engaged group across the university to sit down and explaining all these things to students and staff in detail.” 

At Surrey, the bronze command team is breaking down the functions of every single university building to a “granular level”, tracking the journeys, activities and events in the working day of every facility searching for “pinch points” – moments where spaces could become crowded. It is a painstaking operation. 

From his conversations across AUDE, Wells says some universities are planning for students to undertake a week of intensive face-to-face education followed by two to three weeks off-campus. He stresses that every campus and building is unique and there can’t be a ‘one-size-fits all’ approach. 

“Ultimately, it’s about delivering the best experience for every student but safely and within the constraints we have,” he continued. “But every single estates director I’ve spoken to is having robust pragmatic conversations with health and safety teams, academics and senior leaders about what can be achieved within the current guidelines.”

Read more: Help us compete for international students, Russell Group urges government

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