A pre-Christmas lockdown for Universities creates more questions than answers for the HE sector

rain of snow in town painting

Reports from the Guardian have suggested that Government Ministers may be planning a lockdown at Universities across the UK in December, in order to help students living away from home, return to their families safely.

Just this Sunday, we wrote about the potential issues that students who are living away from their family home may face living on campus over the rest of this semester.

As local lockdowns came into full force across the UK today, it meant that University students across the country ultimately became ever more divided in terms of their shared experience across different institutions. As Scotland and Northern Ireland are potentially looking at full country lockdowns too in the next week, it does become interesting as to why the government have suddenly become so obsessed with making big changes in England for Christmas, rather than now.

Boris Johnson has supposedly been planning to help students make a safe transition to their family homes in time for Christmas. Whether a mid-December lockdown would give the opportunity for students to do that though has been met by deep cynicism and frustration from student officers across the country.

With the general volatility that coronavirus has brought to the world, it is entirely possible that students returning to their hometowns at Christmas may end up being a permanent one. If the proposed plan of students all returning to home at the same time was to go ahead too, it would undoubtedly cause a whole range of issues.

If you take the current situation in the UK as it is, returning home for students already is a challenge. With local lockdowns placing Liverpool in a Tier 3 zone, it means for many students there that they shouldn’t leave the Liverpool City region. If it is the case the government are wanting to pursue local strategies, then any idea to treat students across the country as one homogenous group already seem ill-thought out. Let alone the fact that students are never in any sense a homogenous group.

The hypotheticals

Until this is confirmed as a plan by the government, this is of course entirely hypothetical at the moment. That being said though, the potential idea of a pre-Christmas lockdown does seemingly create more questions than it does answers both before and after the festive period.

If hundreds of thousands of students move back across the country again, what is the likelihood for rising cases across the country within local communities?

Not least has students returning to universities had a huge impact on rising cases of the virus, but has also seen students unfairly apportioned with the blame of this when left with little other option. If students return to hometowns and cities and another peak in the virus takes place, there is the option for it to be blamed on students meeting up with one another after not seeing friends for long. By holding students ahead of Christmas and then letting them return all at once, is that creating a problem in itself?

If students do return home and their area is placed in a local lockdown as cases rise over the Christmas period, will students be penalised if they are unable to return to Universities?

Exams for many Universities typical fall in January, and this ultimately would create not only timetabling and logistical issues internally within Universities; but also an extra issue that student advice centres and Education Officer’s could probably do without.

What happens if a pre-christmas lockdown takes effect, but cases are too high for students to return home?

This is the worst option for both the government and students themselves, but it’s not impossible and it wouldn’t be the first time behind a major policy change during the pandemic. There is every chance that cases of the virus could rise dramatically if there is a pre-christmas lockdown, but also that students deserve more than to be forced to stay on campus too. This is a cohort of students who had little choice but to stay on campus at the start of this semester, and there is the potential the government could take away their opportunity to return at the end of it.

Why does christmas matter? Should the government plan for Easter now too?

If a pre-christmas lockdown was just moving teaching online; the honest question would be as to why students couldn’t just return home anyway if and when it is safe to do so before that period? It seems non-sensical to force students who live away from home to stay in university towns and cities to be taught online when that could happen anyway.

It seriously does question as to why this hasn’t been thought through earlier though too, if the government seriously wanted to do something around Christmas. There will no doubt be a huge movement of students at Easter again too, and it feels this work is purely reactive rather than proactive.

What does this mean for quality and fees?

Some students already feel that the delivery of their degree this year has been lacking in terms of “value for money”. Universities already sold the premise of a ‘blended approach’ in many cases of face-to-face learning and online teaching – and a two-week lockdown for Christmas could pave the way for more of a reason to move teaching online. From a perspective of safety this is likely a good thing, but with so much emphasis on the cost of a degree, this could frustrate students going forwards.

Campaigning

The crux of this from a campaigning perspective depends which way it will go, and if it ever becomes a thing. It seems utterly nonsensical for ministers to not involve both Staff Unions or Students’ Unions in any consultation about the following measures. The government has been apathetic to both so far however, so it remains to be seen as to if they will be consulted. If discussions around this only engages the sector body UUK and vice-chancellors in the decision making too, where will the responsibility lie if things go wrong?

Equally, it is entirely reasonable to assume that a pre-Christmas lockdown may not ever happen at all. Around a month ago at this point, the country and cases of coronavirus were both in entirely different places to where they are now. Days and weeks can change everything at the moment, and it is not beyond impossible that the country may be in lockdown well before Christmas anyway.

The other thing to consider is that with many Universities now being forced to move their teaching to being online-only now, as to the feasibility of them ever returning to face-to-face teaching anyway in the coming weeks. If that is the case, it’s probably unlikely this potential plan would be a true “lockdown” for universities, as ultimately it is already becoming effective in some institutions.

What will happen to the HE sector going forwards, it is difficult to know and that sentence is becoming all to familiar. Students must be involved in the decision making around seismic changes for the sector though. Far too many big decisions have been made without listening to students thoughts, and this could be another with damaging consequences to the higher education sector, if it isn’t properly thought through.

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