Michelle Donelan under fire during education select committee hearing

The universities minister was grilled by the education select committee for an hour

Universities minister Michelle Donelan yesterday appeared in front of the House of Commons education select committee and fielded questions from MPs about her ministry’s plan for the return of students to English university campuses.

On more than one occasion during her hour-long grilling, the minister appeared to attract the ire of committee members, who questioned what grasp she had of the situation unfolding at many campuses across the nation. On more than one occasion the minister defended the sector; questions relating to the ability of universities to deliver quality blended learning were met with a firm rebuttal from Ms Donelan.

Donelan on outbreaks of coronavirus

Robert Halfon: If I could just start by asking you how many students are in lockdown at the moment across the country?

Michelle Donelan: Unfortunately, I can’t give you that accurate figure because Public Health England collates that. What we’ve been doing is verifying those that are then deemed outbreaks. So, most of those students that are in social isolation at the moment will be students [that] have been identified by the track and trace it system, as opposed to those that actually have Covid.

Halfon: In fact, it was possibly a week ago, there were reports that over 3000 students were in lockdown in halls of residence from Dundee to Exeter. You must have some estimates as to whether or not that figure is roughly the same or has it doubled? What is it?

Donelan: It is changing. It will be changing as I speak.

Halfon, again, pressed Ms Donelan for figures – even going so far as to ask her to ask Public Health England to share with the committee the number of students with Covid and the numbers self-isolating. Ms Donelan said she would look into sharing the figures “to the extent that we have them”.

Halfon: But if [the number of cases of coronavirus among students] goes up significantly, up to 50,000, or even more, what then happens? There must be a slightly different plan that the department has ready in order to deal with such a situation.

Donelan: We’re monitoring it on a daily basis. So, I don’t think it would ever go from where it is now to that without looking at that, and maybe potentially re-evaluating our policies.

Ms Donelan then spoke about the need to follow the advice of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE). “And that’s where we would continue to do it, I can’t sort of make policy off the cuff for a hypothetical scenario,” she concluded.

Michelle Donelan under fire during education select committee hearing inset pic
Michelle Donelan was questioned by MPs on her department’s preparations for the new term.

Donelan on testing

Later in the session, Conservative MP Johnathon Gullis and committee chair Robert Halfon turned to the issue of testing.

Gullis: On the third of September, a paper went to SAGE, which advised that a national strategy, defining key principles for additional testing in higher education, should be developed that can be adapted and implemented locally. Has that strategy been developed and implemented? And if not, why were students returned to higher education, campuses and accommodation without such a national strategy in place?

Donelan: Yeah, so quite right, SAGE did emphasise the importance of testing as part of the measures available to protect student, staff and the wider communities. We’ve worked with the Department of Health to ensure that 98% of all universities have a testing facility within three miles. And we’re getting that figure right down to 1.5 miles now, which is the case in many universities already.

In fact, SAGE released a report as far back as 9 July that stated the committee’s concern about the capability to test students on their return to university. “We are also keen to understand the potential implications for internal migrations at the start and end of term, and the relative risk for new cohorts of students in forming new ‘households’ and course groups. This includes the impact on local healthcare; testing capabilities; and public transport and other infrastructure at the influx and subsequent patterns of movement of students,” the report states.

Mr Gullis turned to the issue of students returning for Christmas – a commitment education secretary Gavin Williamson last week gave to the House of Commons – and asked what plans were in place to facilitate that safely.

Before Ms Donelan could respond, Halfon interjected: “You said earlier it couldn’t just be that students could go home if there were household restrictions in place, or local lockdowns. What happens if that’s in place at Christmas time, then surely the students won’t be able to get home?”

Donelan: We’ve made a guarantee that it will be possible for students to go home, we’ll make sure that we facilitate that.

She later continued: “We’re looking at options, which will be detailed in our Q&A, I can’t really pre-empt that, but some of the measures on the table are things like quarantining beforehand, and or utilising testing, other things like that.”

Halfon: Is that because there’ll be mass testing available by then for students?

Donelan: No. We’re looking at a range of options, including things like potential quarantine before people go home. It will also depend on what areas they’re going from and what areas they’re going to. But that’s why we’re producing a robust Q&A on this because this opens a number of follow-on questions, which we’re very aware of.

She later continued: And of course, it’s all going to be caveated. Because things may change, but what won’t change is the fact that students can go home for Christmas and whatever happens, we will make sure that that is a possibility. That’s one of the reasons why we’re going to ensure that we move forward the end of term time where necessary and potentially the last few weeks being online in some cases.

Fleur Anderson: Good luck making sure making students self-quarantine for the last two weeks of the Christmas term.

Donelan later said she “didn’t say all students would have to self-isolate”, but didn’t specify to which students she was referring.

How much does the Department for Education know about the outbreaks?

Ms Anderson questioned how much the minister was aware of “the actual situation in universities”, before sharing an example from Roehampton University, based in her Putney constituency.

Anderson: There is no site within one and a half miles and there is no testing site in Wandsworth at all. They’ve asked for… testing kits so that they could quickly test, and they haven’t been unable to get any. They have a GP there on campus, but they haven’t got any testing kits there to make up for the shortfall.

And when they then wanted to report the results of tests to the London Coronavirus cell, which is what they’re told to do within the plan, a member of staff called a phone line for over three hours waiting to be able to tell them [about a student’s positive coronavirus test] but not able to even log that information with the London cell.

Ms Donelan said she would look into that “specific case”.

Apsana Begum: Did the Department for Education commission any work to model predicted outbreak rates in student halls?

Donelan: I think it’s important to sort of draw a distinction between our department and the Department of Health – they’re the ones that have been leading testing, so it wouldn’t have been right if we’d have modelled health-related things. A lot of these outbreaks depend on student behaviour. The vast majority of students are abiding by all of the rules, and their behaviour is exemplary. However, the minority have potentially been sometimes socialising in a way that’s not fit with the guidance. And that’s why we’ve seen some of these spikes arising.

Read more: Universities UK issues advice on self-isolating students

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