Doing the right thing, or doing the thing right ? A reply to Paul Greatrix

Today, 28th October 2020, on Wonkhe, Paul Greatrix, Registrar at the University of Nottingham posted this blog Doing the Right Things? Universities under Covid. It has attracted a lot of comment on Twitter. I felt I wanted to answer a number of points in more detail than Twitter would allow. So here it is – Paul’s statements in bold italics, followed by my responses.

There has been a huge debate about the start of session with everyone having a view on whether or not universities should have opened for face to face teaching this term. I do think that universities re-opening for students this September was, on balance, the right thing to do – the alternative would have had a greater negative effect on both new and returning students but arguing now about September is pretty pointless.

There was pressure from the government, indeed a requirement, that universities deliver some in-person teaching to be able to charge full tuition fees. This probably corresponded with student preference, but I doubt whether students were told that they would not be able to go back home once on campus if there were incidences of Covid. Were they told that they would be establishing a new ‘household’ and unable to see their families for many months ? It’s hard to know what their choices might have been if all scenarios had been laid out. There was time to do this, especially as some US campuses had started to see cases in early August. It still isn’t too late, as we have seen many universities in the US, UK and across the globe switching to largely online delivery since September. And yes, we can and should argue. The amount of evidence available at the start of the UK term in late September clearly pointed to what would happen. You mention ‘the alternative’ when in fact many alternative solutions present themselves for first years and returning students. And it is not ‘pointless’ to argue about this, in fact it is crucial to do so, preferably through the vehicle of a public enquiry because it is essential that we do not allow such refusal of evidence to lead UK universities into such a dangerous situation ever again.

Everyone in universities is trying to do the right thing for our students, staff and the communities where we all live and work…Everyone has gone above and beyond to ensure our students are supported and we were able to restart teaching in September safely.

Agreed. It has been impressive.

You can’t do any of this without money and there aren’t many who would say that the financial structure of our higher education system is optimal…. Is there a scenario in which government will deliver a bail out package to sustain universities for the next, say, 18 months, which means we don’t have to do any of this stuff on campus? No. We saw only very limited success from a campaign to support universities after lockdown and the idea that we are now top of the list for financial support from government is fantasy.

I don’t know the details of negotiations with the government – mainly because Universities UK prefers to lobby in private – but perhaps universities had a little more leverage than they imagined. And again, if the choices were restricted to bringing all students to campus versus not doing so, then an opportunity was missed to make a plan which could address a situation of evolving knowledge with a number of creative solutions. First years on campus, others online. Or stagger the year groups with attendance on campus for a few weeks at a time.

Furthermore, I would contest that the arguments for going to online only provision are not strong – there are very, very few cases of transmission in the classroom.

You don’t present any evidence for this assertion. Given what we now know, and have known for several months, about aerosol transmission of the virus, it is very clear that there is a risk from having several people in a room together, even with 2m distancing. In some universities, students are not required to wear masks. This is shocking. You can’t keep hiding behind out of date information and recommendations and presenting this as ‘doing the right thing’. As Paul Johnson pointed out to me on Twitter, it is a classic case of ‘doing the thing right’ i.e. a misguided adherence to regulations, rather than thinking through what is actually required. Here. With what we know now.

The SAGE advice prior to the start of session about an online only approach was too late to impact the new term and really could not be applied now.

I’m not sure which SAGE report you are referring to, but a report dated 3rd September, three weeks before most universities brought students to campus, states:

There is a significant risk that Higher Education (HE) could amplify local and national transmission, and this requires national oversight. It is highly likely that there will be significant outbreaks associated with HE, and asymptomatic transmission may make these harder to detect. Outbreak response requires both local plans and coordinated national oversight and decision-making.

The report goes on to identify residential and social settings as high risk for transmission of virus. But there was a financial imperative to fill halls of residence, and the government’s botched handling of A level results meant universities ended up having to take more students than anticipated. Halls should only ever have been half full if there was to be any real chance at suppressing transmission. But given the government-generated chaos and the early September advice, perhaps other solutions could have been found that did not set in motion exactly the scenarios warned about.

There does not seem to be a strong argument at all therefore for moving right now to an online only mode.

I can only think you have not been listening to the staff of your own university and leaders of universities all over the globe. Your reasoning appears to be based on establishing an argument from authority. But when this becomes detatched from current expert opinion (aerosol transmission), this argument becomes deontic – one driven by perceived duty or oblgation. I would go as far as to say it is an argument from authoritarianism when it is used to oblige others, with more informed argments, to comply.

Do we want students to stay in their rooms, halls and houses and avoid campus, classrooms and learning resources altogether?

In many cases, this is exactly what has happened as Covid outbreaks have seen students quarantined in their rooms, accessing learning resources online.

And where will it end – under what circumstances would in person teaching resume?

That’s easy to answer – when the cases per 100,000 fall to an agreed safe level. We note that universities in Hong Kong are mostly online while they have just a handful of cases, mostly arriving at airports, and almost no community transmission. But they are not taking the chance of universities becoming virus clusters and drivers of transmission.

We really do not want Covid to lead to the establishment of a two-tier community where we have one group of staff who are dealing with student issues face to face day in day out and another most of whom never come to campus but instead deliver everything online.

No, we don’t want a two-tier community when we know that all staff make an essential contribution to the student experience. What we want is appropriate assessment of risk. So, in a context of high asymptomatic virus circulation, seeing students individually for short periods, with distancing and masking is one risk; a group of 30 all in one room for 50 minutes with no masks is another, higher level of risk you are asking, or requiring, staff to take.

However, there are other communities too – the local communities in which universities sit and staff and students live, shop and socialise. These communities are suffering much more than our institutions and many local residents are anxious, concerned or even angry about the student presence in neighbourhoods. One thing this crisis has demonstrated is that relationships between universities and their local communities, partners and stakeholders have never been more important.

I do wonder how much goodwill universities have squandered by going ahead with the migration of students and, arguably, accelerating the second wave of the virus. There is evidence of correlation, which obviously doesn’t always entail cause. But there is evidence of correlation of students on campus and the rise of virus transmission in this case as the graphic from mid October at the end of this piece shows. In the case of my borough, Rushcliffe, cases went from 45 per 100k in early September to 1206 today. The incidence in the locality of University of Nottingham is currently falling, but the spread in the neighbouring boroughs is exponential, leading to imminent Tier 3 restrictions. Yes, local populations will, unfairly, blame students. It remains to be seen how they view the presence of universities in their midst in the future.

I argued then (early September) that looking to the position in the US and highlighting the problems that many universities have had there with their reopening plans was not instructive. This was on the basis that there were many variances between US and British higher education, health care and societal models as well as what are often quite different residential, sport, financial, regulatory and social structures which meant that things are hard to compare with the UK in the context of the pandemic….Well, I would still contend that the UK – and UK higher education – are different to the US in many respects, and that whether or not there were loads of cases in the US is not the determining factor in seeking fully to open campuses safely and securely in the UK.

You seem to have been alone in arguing this, and again, presented no evidence. I responded to this at the time. There just is no warrant for making these assumptions that the Covid spread would not be replicated on UK campuses. Obvious if you think about students in halls of residence and their understandable need to meet new people and socialize.

I would honestly say I think the speed of transmission both within student halls and in off-campus settings took many, including me, by surprise and coping with that has been a huge challenge for universities.

This has been a common claim by Nancy Rothwell and others as well. I contend that all university managers KNEW. Hope is something else. Your own scientists were telling you. So were social scientists. And the evidence was mounting across the US. This line is just not credible.

Rather it just feeds social and other media and the notion, quite wrong, that somehow this is all completely out of control and that students are a problem. It isn’t and they aren’t…. Blaming and denigrating students for the growth in Covid-19 cases is both unfair and wrong. They may not all be following all the regulations all the time but show me any part of the community that is.

I completely agree. I make a point of explaining to people it is the fault of the government and university mangers who ignored evidence.

But we do have to learn from the experience of the start of session and ensure we are better placed to prevent future outbreaks and deal with them when they do occur.

Given the current performance, and failure to learn from and adapt to the changing state of knowledge, I’m afraid you have lost my confidence. And that of residents in my neighbourhood.

Worse still, most of these slurring pub bores are also self-appointed experts on everything about Covid-19, British politics and higher education. And everyone is just SHOUTING all the time. I’m not sure I can really see the appeal any more.

They are shouting because they can’t think what else to do when they’ve been shown to be right, colleagues are still being exposed to avoidable risk, and this was all preventable. People are angry, and as you have pointed out, exhausted. And yes, there are a lot of people who are well informed, not experts. And invested in seeing things work. That’s what it means to be a stakeholder.

The alternative to where we are now – not opening campus to new and returning students – would have meant that over two million students would have been staying exactly where they were since March and half a million of these would never have been to their chosen university. In my view the consequences of that for them, their mental health, their ability to adapt and grow into university life and studies would have been potentially catastrophic.

As someone who was a resident tutor for over ten years, I wonder at the damage to mental health that isolation on campus and restrictions on seeing family will do. How is this working for shy students? Students with autism? Homesick students? LGBTQI students? Minority students? Students whose first language is not English?

We have to work out a way to chart a course to how we see our universities operating in future, both to ensure we stand a chance of survival and long run success but also to give us something to be optimistic about.

There is a group of researchers from over 50 universities having very wide-ranging, informative, respectful discussions about building the post pandemic university. You would be welcome to join these conversations about teaching, learning, research, equality, edtech, conditions of labour and many more issues. Your experience would be a valuable contribution.

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