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Post-lockdown campus guidance labelled ‘tick-box exercise’

Image: David Lofink [CC BY 2.0] via Flickr

Department for Education gives guidance on how to reopen campuses next year

Universities have been given more guidance from the government on how to reopen laboratories, classrooms and accommodation safely next academic year, but some have labelled it a “tick-box exercise”.

In guidance published on 3 June, the Department for Education said it expected institutions to open in September with “some differences from previous years” as universities put measures in place to minimise risks to students and staff “in accordance with public health guidelines”.

Universities were forced to close campuses and move teaching online as the coronavirus pandemic prompted a nationwide lockdown in March. Institutions are exploring ways to reopen campuses in the autumn while adhering to strict social-distancing measures to stop the spread of Covid-19.

Although universities have already been given advice on how to reopen labs safely, the DfE said institutions should “assess the risk of opening other buildings and…implement suitable precautions” such as avoiding “pinch points” of people on campus and installing signage to control movements around a building. However, any extra costs for protective measures “would be funded from existing budgets”.

Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union, said: “This guidance feels like a tick-box exercise, rather than an attempt to get to grips with the crisis facing our universities.”

She added that the “chaos and confusion surrounding higher education is making life extremely difficult for all concerned”.

But Jane White, executive director of the Association of University Directors of Estates, said there was “no one-size-fits-all solution” and it was “unrealistic to think any document of this kind can provide ‘all the answers’”.

“We’re likely to be living through a time where our efforts to protect and socially distance need turning up or down at a relatively local level. That throws the weight back onto local risk assessment,” she said. “The guidance gives space for interpretation. There needs to be that space, it’s the reality of the wide variety of specific situations we find ourselves in.”

Libraries must remain closed according to separate government guidance, but the DfE stressed “they are allowed to provide services for orders made via website or online communications, telephones and text messaging, and post”.

It also prompted universities to consider arranging transport for staff and students coming to campuses, as public transport should be avoided unless necessary.

The department admitted universities “are autonomous institutions” and said it expected institutions “to make your own judgements” based on public health guidelines.”

“We hope it gives you freedom within a practical framework to think about what you need to do to continue, or restart, operations during the coronavirus outbreak,” the DfE wrote.