Sabbatical Officers could have written the SAGE recommendations back in March

similar cubes with rules inscription on windowsill in building

The last few weeks have represented U-turn after u-turn from the government and now we find ourselves not only anticipating, but hoping for another to come as soon as possible. It is imperative that the government and universities themselves do right by students and staff, if they are to guarantee the survival of universities.

The past few weeks have been dystopian at best, seeing campuses lockdown halls of residences and force students to stay isolated, for what is for most of them, their first time away from home. It is already incredibly clear the negative impact on mental health that this both can and is having on students, and this comes after an already tough summer for many of these students.

The highest proportion of those currently trapped in halls are the very same group who just over a month ago were forced to mobilise for fair exam results after the A-Level algorithm fiasco. Now, they have been forced into coming to a campus, to pay sky-high rent and be trapped inside blocks called “home” with no way out just for the privilege. This has been well documented in the news though, and many of us are are of some of the horror stories associated with the past few weeks.

Upon the publication of Independent SAGE’s five key recommendations, I am happy to see it includes what the National Union of Students (NUS) and University and College Union (UCU) have been demanding of the sector. 

The recommendations are as follows:

  1. Transfer all teaching and learning online by default.
  2. Make essential in-person teaching and learning (e.g., components of laboratory or practice-based courses) contingent on the regular testing of students and staff, with a ‘dashboard’ approach as adopted by US Colleges, and with stringent adherence to face coverings, handwashing, physical distancing, and ventilation mitigations.
  3. Offer students the choice whether to live on campus / in their university accommodation or at home elsewhere (e.g., with parents and caregivers) and review at the end of the calendar year (i.e., December), and avoid numerous journeys between home and university.
  4. Ensure that students who choose to remain at university while learning online maintain the right to return home for the rest of the term at any point, with accommodation fees refunded, and with testing before doing so.
  5. Ensure full and generous support to students both to self-isolate and to access online learning resources, including practical needs (e.g., food, laundry), learning (e.g., IT, connectivity), and social and emotional needs (e.g., buddy systems, regular wellbeing checks, online events).

In preparation for the new academic year (2020/21) Sabbatical Officers could have written these exact suggestions back in March when the initial outbreak forced all UK University campuses to shut down. As an Officer myself during that period, I know that we saw some of this coming; and so did many colleagues who I worked with too. Many students did also. It was clear the disaster of the last few weeks was coming from a mile away, let alone when that was seven months ago.

The issue that has forced us to reaching this point has been the reliance of Universities to essentially recruit to survive. If it hadn’t been the case of having a Government apathetic to Universities in the first place; coupled with Universities over-reliant on fee income it may have been a different story. There’s been stories of chartering planes to bring international students to the UK; there’s been promises of face-to-face teaching on campus which look almost beyond possible; but above all students haven’t been kept in the loop with this – they’ve just had to take the repercussions.

For many months now, all sabbatical officers and student leaders have asked is that decision makers protect the safety of students on university campuses. There has been discussion about the safety of campuses; and also the experience students will get in a world with coronavirus. This is not to say that people across the sector haven’t put in great work under the circumstances. Many Students’ Unions have found innovative ways to create a social life and space for their students – which seemed impossible outside of a virtual world many months ago.

The issue ultimately is that if universities didn’t sound attractive and alluring in the first place; then students would never come. This would in effect create a great disaster on universities balance sheets, which unfortunately university leaders may see as more of an issue than the current mess we’re seeing unfold. This is the real issue; its profits over people and financial security over safety in some cases.

In the current climate of Higher Education, this pandemic has accelerated the knowledge that the system it operates in is unsustainable and failing. It has accelerated the knowledge of those paying attention to the what we’re seeing unfold on campuses across the country that the sector has lost a sense of purpose. The ethics of institutions competing over the “market share” of students in a global pandemic is interesting anyway; especially when students are paying for the pleasure of studying a subject that they are interested in.

Can we blame University management for this? Vice Chancellors have been systematically warned by both the UCU and Scientists since April. What is now crucial, is to see those of them who have got this wrong admit mistakes and act upon the SAGE recommendations. 

The blame should not and must not end here though, and it is of course greater than just an on-campus issue.

Decisions made of course can be scrutinised, particularly with the desperation to pull first year students to their overpriced halls of residences, which has emphasised the sector’s priorities of profit before human safety. As big a mistake this has proven to be, we cannot solely blame management who are forced to compete against the rest of a sector doing the same thing. We must start focusing on changing the system. Education should be a right, not a privilege. We must ensure a situation like this never can happen again – and at a moment with a difficult relationship between the sector and government this will be hard.

Student leaders. We know right now is a daunting time for so many of you. When running for office, we’re sure that next to none of you had accounted for leading an organisation and representing thousands of students through a global pandemic. You can be confident in using your position of power to argue for what is right, on your campuses and beyond.

This is now the time for you to thrive, and to make the decision driving students into this incredibly difficult situations. Campaign locally to get your members out of this horrendous situation they may currently be in, but do not stop there.

Campaign nationally to ensure you never see something like this again.

Campaign recommendations:

  • Support the NUS’s demands:
    • Move to teaching online as default with the exception of practice-based courses
    • Let students return home if they want to
    • Rent rebates
    • Increased welfare provision
  • … and the rest of SAGE’s recommendations!
  • Ensure your students utilise the NUS’ rent strike webinar sessions! One has already taken place on Thursday 1st October at 5:30pm.
  • Campaign directly to your campus Halls of Residences, Accommodation Services and University management, and give students the opportunity to speak to these groups.
  • Go further than local, campaign against the root of this issue: the sector clearly needs to change in order to not only be better but safer. The A-Level fiasco was a clear example of how rife with inequality the sector is; and marketisation has only exacerbated these inequalities. Get your voice heard on a national scale!

Harry Carling is the Chief Operating Officer at Campaigns for Students.

You can follow him on Twitter here: @harry_carling97

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