On 31st October 2020, Boris Johnson announced new national restrictions in England starting on 5th November. This includes the suggestion that universities “should consider moving to increased levels of online learning where possible” and that students should “not move back and forward between their permanent home and student home during term time”. The guidance on learning is imprecise and not aligned strongly enough to Independent SAGE and SAGE recommendations. The guidance on travel is likely to exacerbate between-community spread between areas of lower/higher infection by concentrating journeys in December as students return home.
Universities’ strategic responses to COVID-19 have been constrained by the requirements of the marketized nature of the sector imposed by UK government. Thus, in-person teaching has been maintained in part because of potential negative financial consequences. The issue of online delivery has become divisive (e.g., the University and College Union has argued consistently for online programme delivery) which has detracted from the wider ramifications of maintaining in-person contact which we outline below. There has been much discussion about ‘fee refunds’ for dissatisfied students in cases where institutions are not providing Competition and Markets Authority-protected obligations to in-person delivery promised in prospectuses. However, Office for Students guidance states that “During the exceptional circumstances caused by the pandemic, we do not intend to take regulatory action … where we consider that reasonable efforts have not been made to protect the interests of students” and “The approach we are taking during the pandemic does not reflect the approach we would normally take to compliance with our regulatory framework … about providers not delivering courses as advertised.”
We urge UUK and Vice-Chancellors to work collaboratively to take the UK government’s recommendation to “move to increased levels of online learning” as a mandate to accept consistent scientific advice to move teaching online, with lab- and practice-based components exempt. This will unlock all other strategies, including enabling student choice for their own well-being. The government must make financial provision for universities to make decisions that are consistent with its own advice.