As “all the king’s horses and all the king’s men” discovered with Humpty Dumpty, it’s always difficult to put things back together.  So we should all be sympathetic to civil servants and ministers as they attempt to navigate a road map out of Covid lockdowns.  Nonetheless, the government’s announcement last week that there should be no wider return to on-campus in-person teaching for students until 17 May was a mistake.  The mistake was compounded by the government’s silence on the issue of student returns in the Prime Minister’s announcement on 5 April.

The result of the government’s announcement is that students are now out of sync with the rest of the ‘road-map’.  So it is possible for any of us to book and travel to self-catering holiday accommodation elsewhere in the country, but not allowed for students to travel to self-catering term-time accommodation. It’s possible to get your nails done in a nail bar, or to visit a tattooist, but not possible for students to attend seminars and lectures. It’s difficult to understand the logic.

The government’s defence of its position is that it is keen to avoid the large-scale movement of students across the country before more under 50s have been vaccinated.  As a theoretical position this has some merit, but it is at odds with what is happening.  Estimates of the number of students who have already returned to term-time addresses whether in halls of residence or private rented accommodation are in the region of 70-76%: the overwhelming majority of students have decided that there would rather be in their term-time accommodation.

The strong pivot to online provision means that students across this and other universities have covered the academic ground of their courses – a result of hard work by staff and resilient engagement with learning.  As it is, a student return to universities on 17 May will come after the end of planned teaching and into the assessment period for most undergraduate students. The five weeks between 12 April and 17 May constitute a significant chunk of the academic year.  I’ve heard senior officials in government suggest that face-to-face teaching could be ‘rescheduled’ to after 17 May, but that ignores the fact that (and a strong emphasis in earlier ministerial guidance) universities have worked hard to stick to their planned timetable for delivery throughout the year.

All this makes last week’s announcement a challenging one for universities and students.  It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that universities have been at best overlooked and at worst seen as less important than elements of the leisure economy.  Perhaps all the king’s horses and all the king’s men would have made similar slips in reconstructing Humpty Dumpty.

The challenge of meeting the needs of young people remains.  Course content has been delivered, and intended learning outcomes have been achieved – the evidence of assessment and examinations, and close working between universities and professional bodies has ensured that.  What has been put at risk is not the acquisition of content, but the wider experience of a university education: the skills which so often make the difference between what is good and what is excellent, the added value which arises from learning alongside and with others, engaging in community, sport and placement activities. It’s a pretty denuded view of university and university learning not to see these as integral – and they are, as we know, drivers of opportunity and fulfilment for students in addition to the advantages they confer in the graduate labour market.

The government decision on student returns from 17 May is wrong, and puts yet another hurdle in the way of generational equity and effective recovery from the challenges of the pandemic. There’s a job to be done to work out how best we can support students in building the portfolio of skills and experiences they need to give them a secure platform for their future lives and their careers, and we will now accelerate our thinking on that, putting, as we have tried to do throughout this crisis, the needs of learners first.

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