This week, The University Times reported on re-opening measures taken by English universities as they prepare for their summer term. For many students and staff, the summer term will facilitate their return to campuses across England after almost 15 months.
The re-opening of English universities will provide important insights as to how Ireland’s third-level sector can function come September, and Irish stakeholders should be watching these developments closely.
The plans contain a litany of measures that have been widely encouraged in higher education since the pandemic began, such as extensive testing and encouraging students to reduce their social contacts. Hybrid learning, one of the central pillars of re-opening plans from last September is still on the cards, with universities being requested to give students an “appropriate mix of online and face-to-face content for each subject”.
The guidelines on the wearing of face masks are not overly strict, with much emphasis placed on social distancing and adequate ventilation. Emphasis on ventilation has not been at the forefront of Irish public health advice, and may serve as an interesting tidbit for higher education stakeholders to keep an eye on.
The government guidelines also revealed an element of flexibility for third-level institutions in England, giving colleges full autonomy in deciding which buildings they decide to re-open. Universities have also been given leeway in their duties to manage outbreaks, with no blanket rules in place. They have been asked to liaise with the director of public health in their local authority instead.
There are undoubtedly differences between the two countries and England’s reopening comes with several caveats: not as many students will be on campuses during summer months, and the UK has benefitted from higher vaccination rates than Ireland.
But there is also no guarantee that the re-opening of colleges in England will be seamless, and if it leads to high case numbers among university staff or students, Irish colleges must note what does and does not work.
Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris has promised an announcement next month regarding guidelines for universities for next year. If successful, the re-opening of English colleges would make for a good blueprint – but if things go awry for our neighbours, Irish universities would be foolish to make the same mistakes.