Jhe problem with universities is that they are both places of teaching, learning and research – and huge hotels. In the midst of the Covid-19 crisis, they are like stationary cruise ships embarked in almost all our major cities with tens of thousands of socially active students on board.
It was inevitable that the arrival of a million students would be accompanied by severe outbreaks of coronavirus and it is showing. But with more realism about what was likely to happen and a greater willingness to take the financial hit, much of what is about to happen could have been avoided.
I write as someone who has just been winched from the deck of one of the beleaguered ships. Until the end of August, I was in the thick of it as Principal of Hertford College, Oxford, about to step down after nine happy and fulfilling years, but in the most surreal of circumstances. Silent corridors, conference rooms, chapels and bars. A university and college without its students is a hopeless and failed institution – a university hive without its bees.
We were one of the first colleges in Oxford to be hit by Covid-19 at the end of the spring term. Very quickly it became clear that effective social distancing was barely possible and that the only way to contain the outbreak was to disperse students to their homes as quickly as possible, with everyone communicating online via Zoom and Microsoft Teams. .
Academically, it worked well. The tutors and lecturers had to work extraordinary hours with great dedication to prepare the teaching materials to be posted online. The students hated their isolation, but in terms of learning and teaching, we didn’t miss a beat; indeed, more than half of our finalists achieved firsts. But what I found extraordinary then was that instead of acknowledging this reality and building on it, the government and national university leaders agreed to a return to normal this fall. We would bring the students back.
Part of the impetus was the human yearning for the nightmare to be over and to give the students the feedback they wanted. But in truth, it was more like Donald Trump’s refusal to wear a face mask – a denial of the deadly obvious. This was justified by the belief that somehow, with sufficient preparation in terms of grouping students into small “households” and organizing ourselves to socially distance, alongside a system of testing and efficient tracing, it would work. Plus, if you believed the hype from some doctors, there might even have been a vaccine by now.
It was a happy win/win result. Students would get what they wanted and universities could stay financially alive with only minimal additional government money.
It might still be OK. After all, there are signs that the alarming growth in the global infection rate is now starting to slow. In Oxford, one or two colleges, like Hertford, have made it clear that all college education will be done online, equipping every student with a laptop, along with incredible efforts to make social distancing work. For example, collective meals will be staggered and will take place outside under a large open tent.
However, the university as a whole still adheres to the government injunction that students should not study from home. I fervently hope that happens and I particularly resent the 18 and 19 year olds who arrive at universities like Manchester or Northumbria to be locked down immediately in quarantine for 14 days.
I always thought this was an overly optimistic bet – an experience of young life that was inherently unfair. This is one more area of national life where the mindset of Conservative ministers – adolescent libertarianism combined with an instinctive distrust of any form of collective action – simply does not match the demands of the moment. Because the obvious solution was to proceed more cautiously: split student returns – half would attend the first half of term and the other half the second, say, with perhaps only finalists being fully allowed to return. This regime would only be relaxed when there really is an effective test and trace system and/or a vaccine.
But that would have meant that the universities’ hotel operations would have been only half full. Already, like the Institute for Tax Studies commented, 13 of the most indebted universities need a £140m bailout. The university sector being half open for an entire academic year would cost £1billion, I estimate, in lost rooms and catering costs. Additionally, potential variations in the online learning options offered by universities threaten to raise questions about the justification for the £9,250 tuition fee. It was money and a debate that the government was not prepared to have. Better bring all the students back.
The universities have agreed. Research labs, a key revenue line and activity – generally need to be at least 40% open to be eligible for grant disbursements, which means having a critical mass of graduates to run them. The larger business model relied on a large and growing number of students.
Universities also did not want to lose their independence, the price to pay for any bailout. In any case, the government couldn’t be incompetent enough to leave us without mass testing and screening by the fall, could it?
Well, here we are. The government is incompetent. City officials across the country are finding they are hosting super-spreaders, some in areas where there are already partial shutdowns. Students struggle with anxiety and a sense of responsibility while wanting to seize every opportunity that presents itself for the enjoyment of youth.
You can only sympathize. But we, their elders, should have handled it all so much better – we should have told them that this year’s learning would be done entirely online and gradually brought them back. It takes judgment and leadership – very rare qualities.
Will Hutton is an Observer columnist