We need a Plan B for universities as well as schools – and much the same one

28 Sep

Government sources insist that students will be allowed to go home for Christmas – and not be locked up en masse, as they have been at some universities, unable to leave halls of residence.

Ruth Davidson has swooped on the shutdown in Scotland, writing that students have been confined to their rooms, barred from visiting shops to buy food – let alone pubs or restaurants – banned from travelling home, policed by extra security staff and threatened with letters instructing compliance under threat of suspension.

These, remember, aren’t people who necessarily have Covid-19, or who have been directly in contact with others who do.  It isn’t obvious that the situation is much different in parts of England, where some three thousand students are apparently also locked down.

Nor is it clear how many students will be able to be at home with their family when Christmas comes.  For either the Government’s latest restrictions will be in place, if Boris Johnson maintains his grip on policy, or else even stricter ones will have superceded them.  We hope that mass testing will be up and running by then, but aren’t counting our chickens, or Yuletide turkeys either, come to that.

In which case, the number of students allowed home will depend on the number who have symptoms of the virus, since those who have it must self-isolate for 14 days by law, as must those contacted by test-and-trace services.  Government guidance also says that “all other household members need to stay at home and not leave the house for 14 days” if another has the virus.  What happens when the location is not a home but student accommodation?

This provokes the further question of whether students should have returned to university.  If you want to attack Ministers, you will claim that the present tangle was forseeable.  If you want to defend it, you will counter that normality must resume – as nearly as possible, anyway.

There are a number of short-term means of plastering over the cracks, none of which will provide a smooth and seamless finish.  Some universities are offering vouchers for food, or rebates, or providing food directly.  Robert Halfon wants the students affected to recieve discounts.

The colleges will argue that they shouldn’t pay these, since they aren’t responsible for the lockdown rules.  The Chancellor might well say in response that this may be so, but the Commons can’t simply load more debt on the taxpayer indefinitely – or there won’t be any public money for universities in the first place.

There are issues for the long-term as well as for the short.  The central aim of the Government’s latest Covid-19 measures is to build a firewall between work and home, with the former operating as near normally as possible but the latter less, as part of the balance to protect livelihoods as well as lives.

Schools are placed in the former category, partly because parents will be unable to work normally if they aren’t, and partly because of the value we place on education.  University education also has value, both to the economy and in its own right.

But it has never been universally available to all regardless of qualification, as is obviously the case for primary and secondary schooling.  And as our columnist Neil O’Brien notes, the number of students in higher education is out of balance: for around ten per cent of women, and a quarter of men, their degree isn’t worth it.

He wrote recently that “highly subsidised universities would propose to government how they will reduce their cost to the taxpayer. That could mean reducing numbers on some courses, or making them cheaper with shorter degrees, or and doing more online. Or a mix”.  This is where student accomodation comes in.  Why do a higher proportion of British students leave home for higher education, compared to some other comparable countries?

The answer is bound up with the monopoly that Oxford and Cambridge held on university education in England from the medieval period until 1827, when University College, London, opened.  In consequence, an assumption was written into our educational culture that if students were to go university, they should go to it rather than it come to them.

This was less so on the continent, where local universities are more common – though our national picture has changed as new universities have suddenly sprung up fully-formed, or as other institutions have gradually become universities.

So for example, David Willetts, in his A University Education, traces the story of how, in Bradford, the Mechanics Institute morphed its way through Bradford Technical School to Bradford Technical College to the Bradford College of Art & Technology to Bradford College…to Bradford University.

However, there is no uniform story of locally-rooted colleges becoming Oxbridge-type universities, complete with ivy-laden walls or red brick or both.  The former colleges of advanced techology, such as Braford itself, have spells in industry as part of their courses.  Others have links to regional or local industries.

All of which reinforces the question of whether the country needs so many other universities and students following the Oxbridge model in the first place.

The short-term pressure on living space, accomodation and lecture rooms will intensify next year, as the knock-on effects of this year’s A-level fiasco work their way through the system, because of the students who have now qualified to enter a university, but have been forced to postpone entry until next year.

Meanwhile, the long-term trend to doing more online is being speeded up by the Coronavirus, as the move from learning together from lectures in big rooms to doing to separately from screens in smaller ones gathers pace.  Furthermore, universities aren’t always in full control of the living quarters that they offer students.

Halfon is certainly right in believing that the Government needs a Plan B for universities – mirroring the one that both he, this site and others have called for in schools, as the Covid-19 case numbers rise.

Obviously, universities have an independence from government that schools don’t.  But it wouldn’t be beyond the wit of man to design a fee and finance system that rewards universities for more online teaching.

Such a solution would be fiercely debated.  Moving schooling online temporarily is one thing; shifting “the university experience” online too would be another (though to some extent this is happening already).

We already complain that young people are stuck at home for too long.  Do we want them there during their university years, too?

What about the horizan-widening that moving to a new place brings, together with mixing with others from outside one’s home town, city or village?

Our bleak answer is that one can no more turn back the online tide than one could turn back a real one, and that the universities, like so much and many elsewhere, have no alternative but to sink or swim in it.