Items and actions
The chair (Jamie Hepburn - Minister for HE, FE, Youth Employment and Training) welcomed all to the meeting.
All agreed the minutes for the previous meeting (23 December 2021) are accurate, subject to the addition of a comment highlighting the ‘importance of and need for institutions to communicate properly with students/staff, when there is still uncertainty on aspects of the pandemic’.
Action: minutes to be published online.
Diana Stockton (PHS) presented the latest COVID-19 data, while Brett MacGillivray (Scottish Government COVID-19 Analysis Division) shared updates on COVID-19 modelling. During the Q&A, the following point was addressed.
- in light of recent changes in how testing is conducted - unions expressed concerns about the potential impact of a delay in detecting new variants. They were reassured that the PCR sequencing frequency had not changed so, these changes will have little to no significance
First Minister statements
Craig Robertson summarised the FM's recent statement, reporting on the challenges faced by the social care sector and the acute pressure on NHS due to staff absences and the backlog of illnesses that now need to be addressed. He pointed out that while the outlook appears positive, COVID-19 will be here for a while; thus, baseline measures will remain in place, but Omicron restrictions set before Christmas will be lifted. The discussion covered the following points:
- the COVID-19 certification scheme will not be extended. In order to balance the associated long term health risks, the sector is working to adapt to life on campus that is more in line with the national picture
- work has started on updating the strategic framework, which will be modelled on the good behaviours built over the last few years; however, there is no timeline yet on when this will be published
- Scottish Government (SG) encouraged the group to share their vision of what adapting to a world with COVID-19 would look like
- members were asked to indicate precisely which adaptations they would like to see included in the framework update that go beyond the baseline measures and minimise compliance fatigue while addressing the needs of learners
- universities provided examples of how throughout the pandemic they went above and beyond what was required from the rest of society. They asked the SG to exercise more trust, begin stepping back and permit institutions to determine their own COVID-19 risk assessment measures
Keith Fernie updated the group on the ongoing work to update sector guidance and align this more with the national guidance. Acknowledging the fluid nature, he invited the group to provide input and work more closely with SG to develop appropriate advice at the appropriate time - while the strategic framework is being refined. The discussion followed:
- unions welcomed more consistent guidance and suggested that it would greatly contribute to education recovery by giving workers the reassurances needed to return to offices on campus
- unions flagged the importance of supporting those who are vulnerable to COVID-19 (BME, older people, disabled, carers) and ensuring “opening up” doesn’t mean they are excluded from campuses
- US expressed concern over the perceived domineering nature of the sector's guidance that appears to be a deviation from the four nations approach - which could lead to Scottish Universities falling behind their counterparts
- NUS noted some contradictory and ambiguous language in previous iterations of the guidance and asked SG to ensure that advice targeted directly to students is made more transparent and straightforward
- action: officials to ensure consistency and clarity of language in guidance and all supporting documents going forward
- colleges asked for the guidance to include a road map that marks out a possible direction upon which individual institutions can make better preparations and avoid making disruptive temporary decisions
- university's stressed that the new iteration of guidance should not be so removed from the rest of society – and shared that they would welcome a clear and positive statement that supports the return to in-person teaching and learning
- in addition, Community and Learning Development (CLD) reported they were still unable to gain access to many facilities, which has made it challenging to resume their work in a meaningful capacity compared to the rest of the sector. SG was asked to clarify how CLD providers who own premises can access the £5 million ventilation fund offered to schools
- action: SG to seek clarification and liaise with CLD colleagues
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