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"The Governor View" – governors “clear and confident” on campus re-opening plans, despite continued uncertainty

Universities across the UK are preparing “extensively” for the final phase of students returning to campus and resuming at least some face-to-face teaching, following the publication of road maps out of lockdown by the Westminster, Scottish and Welsh governments.

Most students on courses that require them to access facilities on campus have already returned to university, but for the remainder, the advice has been to stay at home and continue learning online until lockdown measures are eased. The latest guidance from the Scottish government says more students should be able to return to universities and colleges from 5 April, although the roadmap suggests full blended learning may not be possible before 17 May. The Welsh government has stated it expects all students will be able to return to campus for blended learning from 12 April, adding that it will review the position at the end of March and make a statement on 1 April. In England, despite significant lobbying from the sector for a 12 April return, the government has issued new guidance indicating that students who have not yet returned for face-to-face teaching will have to wait until 17 May to do so.

University governors in England, Scotland and Wales who spoke to Advance HE felt they were clear about when institutions should expect remaining students to be returning to campus and were adamant that there was no reason for any further delays. As the chair of governors of one English Russell Group university put it: “As I see it, each week that we keep students away from the university is a week that they lose something. Sure, the online learning has settled remarkably quickly after the first lockdown; and I’m sure all universities are working to continue to improve how that’s delivered. But it’s not what students come to a university like ours for.”

He added that he had been surprised by some universities that had suggested they may not have all students back on campus this year, including some that have said teaching will remain online for most until at least the Autumn.

“We were disappointed with the number of students that we were allowed to have back this term, and we will be seeking to maximise the number we can get back in for what they are paying for – to learn, using the facilities of the university,” he said.

A Scottish university governor said that although guidance in the early days of lockdown had been a “moving feast”, more recent closer working between government officials and university leaders meant institutions had a clear idea of what to expect – which was likely to amount to a “gradual opening up” from 5 April. In Wales, “very clear communication from the outset” between government and university leaders has also helped smooth the path to a “steady return”, according to one governor. “In an odd way, I think the pandemic has helped bring the sector closer together,” he added.

For governors, the top priority in preparations for re-opening has been to ensure the safety of students, staff and local communities. Institutions have made a significant financial investment to make campuses Covid-safe, and establish testing facilities on site. Continued social distancing measures and wearing of face masks are a given, but governors are hoping that this will not prevent students from catching up on some of the social activities they have missed out on over the past two terms.

Governors agreed that “you can’t communicate enough” when it comes to preparing students and staff for returning to campus. With the University and College Union calling for courses to be taught online until the end of the academic year wherever possible, communications with staff are particularly sensitive. A Scottish governor commented: “We like to be very clear when we go out with statements to staff about what is going to happen because it adds further strain if it’s a bit vague or not complete.” The governor at an English university said it was important to “use the right sort of tone” in communications. “It’s easy when people are under stress to misunderstand something because the tone doesn’t quite hit it right,” he said. The governor of a Welsh university said it was also important to communicate and work closely with local authorities and health bodies, to show that institutions are acting responsibly and taking the health of local communities seriously.

Many institutions have already found themselves having to work harder on communicating with students, thanks to the impact of lockdown. There have been growing calls for fee refunds in compensation for lost learning, and rent rebates for unused accommodation. Governors who spoke to Advance HE agreed there was “no case” for “unaffordable” fee refunds, but rent rebates have been offered for students in university halls, and hardship funds provided for those in private housing. The governor of a Scottish university said one of best moves her institution made was to invite the president of its students’ association to join its executive board. “It means we now have a students’ association speaking knowledgably to students and staff about the challenges of managing the university through Covid,” she said.

A high proportion of international students have remained on campus throughout lockdown, and therefore governors felt they deserved special attention. One commented: “It has been the subject of genuine debate at council as to whether we have been doing enough for our international students. Looking after their health has been a real focus.”

Governors felt the experience of the past year has left their institutions fully geared up for re-opening, and any associated challenges. Important lessons have been learned along the way. One governor said: “Universities must think through every possible scenario, and be prepared to invest – you can’t do this sort of thing on the cheap.” Another advised: “Stress test all your plans, and look at them from the perspective of students as well as staff.” Particular attention should be paid to any poor quality online provision, and the robustness of health and safety plans, she added.

Looking further ahead, universities must recognise the measures they are putting in place will need to be there for some time, a Russell Group university governor warned.

“If anyone thinks we are going to get out of this by the next academic year, I think they are probably being a bit over-optimistic. So from a governance point of view, we need to make sure that the university is planning for the long term where the restrictions caused by health issues due to Covid are with us for a considerable period of time.”

This monthly round-up was updated on 14 April 2021.

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