My personal view on “Higher education: reopening buildings and campuses” (UK Department of Education, updated 10 September 2020)

Yesterday, a journalist asked me for my personal view on the recently updated UK Department of Education Guidance titled “Higher education: reopening buildings and campuses” (updated 10 September 2020). I’d like to share my individual position here in case I’m quoted later.

I feel incredibly privileged and very grateful to be working from home and to know that I will be teaching remotely this term. I am looking forward to using my teaching and ed tech skills in a different context and I am certain it will be an engaging and positive experience for everyone.

At the same time, I am also seriously concerned about the very near future in terms of the reopening of UK university buildings and campuses, and the risk to the health and well-being of colleagues and students due to the pandemic. I am seriously concerned that the government advice updated on the 10th of September is not enough to protect students, staff and their families and communities.

In line with the government’s management of the pandemic, the guidance updated yesterday continues to state that “HE providers” should make their “own judgements” about their “provision, while following the latest public health guidance.” As evidenced by the government data and as confirmed by studies such as React-1 (coverage here; see also this) , which catastrophically show a recent significant increase in positive confirmed cases in the UK following the easing of lockdown measures, merely following government guidance and asking organisations and individuals to make their own judgements is proving to be and is likely to continue to prove being very risky, endangering everyone.

Looking at what has happened in US universities after returning to campus also confirms that “re-opening universities is high risk” (Yamey and Walensky 2020). One of the reasons is that the current “hands, face, space” strategy is both too simplistic and ambiguous to be effectively followed, enforced and monitored in a strict and systematic fashion in most University campuses. This is not only due to human behaviour but because of the physical nature of campus buildings, communal spaces and infrastructures. I worry there is a false sense of being “COVID-secure” because government guidance can be claimed to be followed in one way or another; but local, subjective, often unscientific judgements are being made. The simple and undeniable fact is that people meeting and speaking in person indoors, even when maintaining strict social distancing and wearing face coverings, are still at considerable risk of contagion. 

The guidance updated yesterday does not take into account the sensible but belated guidance published by Independent SAGE on 20 August 2020 and many of us (not only those in the ‘shielding’ category) are seriously concerned for the health and safety of staff, students, and our families and communities.

It is disappointing and worrying that the specific and clear recommendations for the reopening of universities from leading health experts (Yamey and Walensky 2020; Independent SAGE 2020), including 1) curbing community transmission before reopening, 2) quarantining before or on arrival and 3) high frequency screening of all students and staff on campus have not been addressed nor mandated by the government guidance, with measures across the sector generally limited to face-coverings, 1m+ distancing wherever possible and regular cleaning/disinfection.

In my personal opinion, any effective government guidance had to be genuinely led by science, ethics and a duty of care. This one was not.

After drafting this text I came across this anonymous post. All of us in academia need to ask ourselves why authors of pieces like this choose to waive their right to a byline, particularly when their profession depends in great measure precisely on attribution of authorship.