Dozens of Universities Still Imposing Mask Mandates

A survey of 117 universities by the Sunday Telegraph has found that 51 of them are going beyond the guidance issued by the Department for Education. Ewan Somerville has more.

Universities should not force students to wear masks as they have “sacrificed enough”, a minister has said as eleven Russell Group institutions keep rules in place.

Michelle Donelan, the Universities Minister, joined the student watchdog in rebuking vice-chancellors who are still imposing curbs despite England’s last remaining restrictions being ditched.

Guidance from the Department for Education says that “face coverings are no longer advised for students, staff and visitors in teaching settings or communal areas”.

But an analysis has found eleven of the 24 leading Russell Group universities – and a total of 51 universities across the country – are going beyond DfE guidance despite last month’s rule relaxation.

Just 21 of the 117 universities surveyed had mask policies in line with the DfE, sparking fury from parents and students, while the others were unclear or out of date.

The University of Bristol is still telling all staff and students they are “required to wear a face covering inside buildings on campus”, including teaching spaces, corridors, libraries, reading rooms and study spaces, though residences are exempt. It describes masks as “a sign of respect, kindness, and sensitivity to each other”.

Meanwhile, London School of Economics guidance says masks are still mandatory in lifts and for “students in all teaching rooms”. UCL also “expects” masks in teaching areas, as does the University of Leeds when staff ask for them.

Oxford University’s guidance says: “Departments, as well as individual members of teaching staff, can continue to mandate face coverings in teaching and learning environments (unless individuals are exempt). Face coverings are strongly encouraged in libraries and should be worn when moving around university buildings.”

Responding to the findings, Ms Donelan told the Telegraph: “I do not believe universities should be going beyond our guidance by imposing additional, mandatory, restrictions on students.

“Young people have already sacrificed enough during this pandemic and students should be able to enjoy the full university experience they deserve.”

Worth reading in full.

Parents Forced to Watch Children Graduate Online as Universities Refuse to Accept Pandemic is Over

Universities are forcing students to go to their graduations alone, while their families watch online, in defiance of the Government’s scrapping of Covid restrictions in England. The Telegraph has more.

Students have waited up to two years for a graduation ceremony as campus officials cancelled them for most of the past 22 months.

While some universities refused to rearrange graduations, the University of Cambridge and Imperial College London are among those rescheduling ceremonies for their graduates.

But despite the scrapping of all remaining COVID-19 restrictions in England in recent days, students still face draconian curbs such as social distancing, mandatory face coverings and a ban on handshakes.

The Chairman of the student watchdog has now warned vice-chancellors they have “no excuse” to go further than the Government’s Covid rules.

Lord Wharton, who heads the Office for Students, told the Telegraph: “There is no excuse for universities imposing stronger restrictions than the Government requires.

“They should be looking to get back to normal – whether that’s with face-to-face teaching or organising proper graduations as students should be able to expect.”

The University of Cambridge has told graduates that the next five ceremonies between the end of February and April will be “in-person but no guests permitted”, meaning families cannot attend. Its website also says “face coverings [are] to be worn at specified times and social distancing”.

Imperial College London is hosting two rearranged “graduate-only” ceremonies in the Royal Albert Hall on March 10th and March 30th to “ensure the safety of everyone involved on the day” as “distancing measures will be in place”. Parents will be forced to watch their children graduate online.

“We know that this will be disappointing after so many years of support from your friends and family. The ceremonies will be live streamed on the graduation web pages so that they can support you from wherever they are in the world,” the University’s guidance says.

What’s the betting that university courses will still be “blended”, vaccine mandates will be in place and students will be forced to wear masks until the end of 2023?

Worth reading in full.

Universities Must Not Switch to ‘Remote Learning’ Again

We’re publish a guest post today by Dr David McGrogan, a Professor at Northumbria Law School, making an impassioned plea to higher education providers not to switch to ‘remote learning’ next term in response to the Omicron panic. In his view, this will send a series of terrible messages to students, including that the world is a dangerous place and you had best avoid it by living your life online. You can link to Professor McGrogan’s Substack newsletter here.

It’s “déjà vu all over again” as Covid restrictions are reimposed. The sense that more is coming is almost palpable – a repeating pattern that it increasingly feels we will never escape.

Here in higher education, the mood is a strange mixture of resigned and febrile. On the one hand, staff and students plod gamely on towards the end of the semester while trying not to think about the news. On the other, there is a drumbeat of anxiety underpinning everything: will we be here in January, or will it be back to the dreaded ‘remote learning’, which we performed for almost the entirety of last year?

‘Dreaded’ is not too strong a term. The experiment of 2020-21, if it can be called that, was a disaster. It is no slur against either academic staff or students to confess this. We all did our best, but it was made painfully evident during the last academic year that human beings simply can’t learn from sitting in front of a screen. Teaching is a relationship that has to be performed in person, where teacher and student can read each other’s gestures and facial cues, gauge each other’s reactions, and – more importantly – build the foundations of trust on which education rest. Students need to be enthused about what they are studying by being in a room with a lecturer who really appreciates the importance of their subject. They sometimes also need to be told to concentrate, to listen, to stop looking at their phones. None of this works when mediated through a digital device.

Those are just the educational reasons why the shift to remote learning was so harmful, though. Far more serious, in my view, were the messages that it sent to students.

We Must Not Shut Down University Campuses Again

We’re republishing a post today by Dr. Alberto Giubilini, a Senior Research Fellow in Practical Ethics at the University of Oxford, that originally appeared on the Collateral Global website alongside its latest report, which is about the impact of shutting down university campuses on students’ mental health. Among the shocking findings are that one in three students across a range of countries have reported symptoms of depression or anxiety in the last 20 months. Here is an extract:

The results in the report published this week in Collateral Global this week on the impact of pandemic restrictions on university students’ mental health – sadly – should not be too surprising. Young people were not a priority during the pandemic. It is quite telling that most countries – and most people – did not change strategies and attitudes after the initial uncertainty, as we gained more evidence about how minuscule young people’s risk is from Covid. We continued imposing population-wide restrictions, including the closures of schools and university campuses, and moving to online-only teaching, even when it became clear that these restrictions would not benefit young people. They did not need protection from Covid as much as they needed protection from the effects of policy responses on their mental health and their psycho-physical development more generally. This report emphasises once more how we failed to protect young people’s well-being from the inevitable harms of prolonged restrictions.

Public health policies are justified to the extent that they produce significant enough collective benefits without disproportionately burdening certain groups. Admittedly, in situations of uncertainty, a rigorous cost-benefit analysis is not always possible. And yet, the stricter the restrictions, the stronger the duty to rigorously gather real-time evidence on what costs they impose on different groups. Like many other pandemic measures, the extended closures of university campuses have been a massive social and public health experiment. But even experiments require constant interrogation as to whether they are working, and a measure of their success must be the continuous evaluation of whether they are creating collateral damage. It seems we didn’t want to see or give due consideration to such damage.

The prolonged closure of university campuses and the decision to move online all the teaching, socialising, and formal and informal interactions that play a central role in young people’s psycho-physical development resulted in enormous costs that we could not see on our computer screens. With the report this week, the evidence of the significant damage we caused to them becomes more apparent – for example, with the studies showing one in three students reporting symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Worth reading in full.

Britain’s Top Universities Chartering Planes to Fly in 1,200 Chinese Students to Claw Back £1.3billion in Overseas Fees

Top U.K. universities are chartering flights to bring Chinese students into the country next month in an effort to overcome travel restrictions. Britain’s 220,000 Chinese students account for nearly a fifth of all tuition fee income and universities are terrified of losing it. MailOnline has more.

More than 50 universities, including Imperial College London, Bristol and Exeter, have already chartered four flights, bringing in some 1,200 Chinese students, the Times reported.

Mainland China has scrapped all direct commercial flights to the U.K. but students can travel to London via Hong Kong, which is on the U.K.’s green list for travel.

More flights are now being arranged in order to meet demand, the paper reported, citing Into HE, an international education organisation assisting in hiring the flights.

Preparations include airport transfers between Heathrow and the university campuses, along with accommodation and food for the students, who currently have to isolate for 10 days upon arrival in the U.K.

The charter flights come amid fears that income from overseas students – worth more than £1billion to U.K. universities – could dip amid ongoing coronavirus travel restrictions.

There are some 220,000 Chinese students studying in the U.K., the Times reported, with students from China providing nearly a fifth of all tuition fee income. Across the prestigious Russell Group, one in every 10 students is Chinese. After China, India is the country from which most overseas students at U.K. universities hail.

The availability of flights to the U.K. has been impacted by coronavirus, particularly over concerns about the Delta variant, prompting some universities to extend online learning and introduce multiple start dates in a bid to accommodate international students struggling to get to the U.K. in time for the beginning of term.

Experts have also warned that the focus on catering to international students risks overlooking the needs of British students, who pay nearly four times less in fees than international students.

Worth reading in full.