As Covid-19 restrictions are being lifted apace across the UK, universities are reviewing their campus safety measures amidst competing expectations.
The latest Department for Education (DfE) guidance to universities, which was issued on January 20th, states that with the end of Plan B, COVID restrictions no longer apply to higher education and that universities should deliver face-to-face teaching “without restrictions”.
Face coverings are no longer advised in teaching settings and communal areas and the working from home advice has been rescinded.
The message that normal service should be resumed is being hammered home to HE at ministerial level. Michelle Donelan has written to universities spelling out the face-to-face teaching expectation and education secretary Nadhim Zahawi wrote an open letter to students telling them to complain if they felt the in-person offering was not sufficient.
Universities are clearly under pressure to comply. However, in the other ear, various staff and student unions are raising concerns about the pace of change.
In response to the lifting of Plan B restrictions, University and College Union (UCU) general secretary Jo Grady said that whilst Covid cases remain high, basic measures, such as face masks, should continue and that abandoning mitigations was “irresponsible”.
As well as the provision of high-quality face masks, the union also wants to see sick pay for all staff and a guarantee that workers at increased risk from Covid will not be required to undertake in-person work.
For senior management teams, juggling these sometimes conflicting demands is no easy task. For governors, getting the balancing act right is important for a variety of reasons, not least because of the potential impact on the student experience, staff morale, finances and reputation. Governors who spoke to Advance HE point out that ultimately, universities are autonomous institutions that report to the Office for Students, not directly to government.
“It is a case of ministers trying to use the pulpit and in some ways, it is a high-risk game because they could be rebuffed and don’t have any levers to force action,” said a governor at a Russell Group university.
While governors are unlikely to be involved in decision making about the details of campus Covid measures, the possible implications are the subject of governing body discussions. For instance, league table rankings could well be impacted by student satisfaction levels around the extent of face-to-face provision or whether exams remain online.
Student representation on governing bodies is vital here for ensuring governors are kept abreast of grass-root feelings on campus, which may differ from the views being expressed by the National Union of Students (NUS) or by UCU.
“In my experience, having a student on the governing body is incredibly useful and they are normally much less militant than the NUS and are rarely shouting about the demands in press releases,” said one governor.
The governor at a new university makes a similar point.
“Universities are having to take into consideration the different aspects and stakeholder views across the board,” she said. “Sometimes the view of the union, speaking for the whole sector, does not necessarily represent the opinions of the staff at an individual institution. It can sometimes be a stronger line than staff within institutions would express or agree with.”
One governor points out that the lifting of restrictions can make decision making harder as clear instructions give way to risk assessments, interpretations of advice and assessing competing needs.
“It is more of a balancing act, and therefore trickier when the restrictions are lifted,” said a governor at a post-1992 institution in the north of England. “There is quite a lot of pressure from the government about the way in which universities should be teaching, but actually the whole picture about face-to-face teaching versus online learning is more nuanced than it is necessarily talked about.”
The governor, who had spoken to a minister as part of work on a task force, said it seemed to be accepted there were cases where online learning made more sense, for instance, a lecturer with Covid teaching a class remotely or students in isolation accessing online lessons.
“Universities will be thinking about the messaging coming out of government, but they will be aware that it is prompted by ministers getting queries from constituents, students, parents or whoever,” she said. “Universities are quite clear that they are autonomous. As long as senior management teams can evidence that there is a good reason why this course is taught in this way, they can be confident in what they are doing. This is going to be the approach, rather than them listening to what is coming out of government or the DfE, and thinking ‘we have to disregard what our students or staff feel’.”
In line with a number of institutions where face coverings will remain “mandatory”, one governor’s university is retaining its masks requirement indoors, including teaching spaces, despite the new government guidance to the contrary. On some campuses, academics have instead been given the power to insist on them if they feel they are necessary.
Governors say “one-size-fits-all” approaches are not appropriate when Covid rates differ across the country and the needs and expectations of groups of students differ, depending on the course they are studying, their location, and student characteristics.
One governor cites the decision by a large modern university to make a “big play” in September that it was returning to entirely face-to-face teaching.
“It was a no brainer for them,” he said. “By and large their students are not those who might have a nice working environment at home, they might not even have fast broadband. They are local students who come into the building to work; they are less likely to be in halls of residence having parties. They also might not have been prepared for university-level work as much as your average Russell Group student, so might need small group teaching and more support. For other universities, there are different considerations that might make that amount of in-person teaching more problematic and less of a necessity, such as significant numbers of overseas students not being on campus or older, less well-ventilated buildings.”
For some students, such as those with disabilities, remote learning has been a game-changer. For them, lecture capture and the online availability of materials are here to stay, governors feel.
“Where I think universities are struggling to get the point across is that they have rolled out a load of edtech in the crisis and some of that has got all sorts of advantages,” said one governor. “It would be crazy to roll back on all this edtech once the crisis is over. You can have access to online concurrent with in-person teaching and there is a certain amount of student expectation that this will be the case.”
A perspective from across the border in Scotland, where the removal of restrictions has been slower, also highlights the importance of close working between governors, senior management, staff and students.
“You could almost say that we have erred very much on the side of caution, which has of course been very much the flavour of the approach of the Scottish Government,” said the governor of one Scottish university. “The head of HR and the senior VP worked extremely well together and have gone the extra miles to make sure that everyone is well informed, well briefed and their concerns are taken into account .”
Feedback shows that the two student reps on the governance body have felt they have been “members of the decision making community and not just finding out the information after the event and being asked to distribute it among their peers”.
In Wales, governors feel the HE journey through the pandemic has been more measured and less “knee jerk” than in England because of high-level communications in the form of a Welsh Government working group of ministers, vice-chancellors, the universities chairs’ group, Universities Wales, FE college, UCU, the NUS and other stakeholders.
“It met regularly to go over issues and updates and as a result, there were no surprises when announcements were made,” said one governor. At his university, the executive keeps a “Covid decisions log”, detailing why and how actions are taken and how they relate to national guidance, which is discussed at governors meetings.
For Scottish institutions, progress through the pandemic has also been less of a balancing act; clearer messaging and more consistency from the Scottish Government leaving less room for interpretation.
One governor in Scotland cited his experience of various train journeys from Edinburgh to London to illustrate the difference in approach.
“I was struck over the last few months that everybody gets on the train in Scotland wearing their masks and as soon as the train gets to the border, close to Berwick on Tweed, people are ripping their masks off.
“Every single communication that came out from the senior management team, and there was a lot, was prefaced with ‘in line with current Scottish Government guidance/policy’ - and that invariably takes the sting out of the debate.”