Coronavirus (COVID-19) Advisory Sub-Group on Universities and Colleges minutes: May 2021

Minutes from the meeting of the group on 19 May 2021.

Attendees and apologies

Advisory Group members:

  • Prof Carol Tannahill (Chair)
  • Prof Sheila Rowan
  • Prof Chris Chapman
  • Dona Milne
  • Prof Ian Rivers
  • Prof Devi Sridhar
  • Prof Marion Bain
  • Prof Paul Flowers
  • Stephen Reicher
  • Gary Gillespie
  • Linda McKay


  • Prof Brigid Daniel 

Public Health Scotland:

  • Dr Diane Stockton


  • Katherine Peskett (for item 1)
  • Stephen Pathirana (for item 1)
  • Audrey MacDougall 


  • Craig Robertson
  • Susan Pryde

Fraser Syme
Idris Akormadu

Items and actions


The meeting was chaired by Carol Tannahill. The Chair welcomed members to the meeting and thanked them for taking part in the sub-group.     

Stephen Pathirana and Katherine Peskett, Directors of Scottish Government’s Advanced Learning and Science directorate, provided background on the genesis of the sub-group, high level overviews of the college and university sectors, and the governance structures relating to this group and the Covid Recovery Group (the repurposed Ministerial Leadership Group).

In discussion, the following points were made:

  • with vaccinations now available, there are more tools at our disposal than there were last year
  • college students and staff will return to campus earlier than universities so pace and timing are important
  • there are numerous logistical challenges, such as vaccinating young people; increasing the number of testing sites for waste water; plans for the return of students in rUK being different to those in Scotland; progression to college and university this year being based on unfamiliar, alternative certification for many which will require effective support; and the current limited resource for mental health support in colleges and universities
  • communications with students will be critical so that they understand what they are meant to do

Draft remit and terms of reference for the subgroup

The sub-group considered the draft remit and terms of reference. 


  • all to provide any further comments on the terms of reference to Idris

Looking ahead COVID-19 modelling and projections

Audrey MacDougall delivered a presentation highlighting her team’s modelling work and the description of four different future world scenarios considering a range of factors such as the effectiveness of vaccines and their uptake. The modelling is being updated to reflect recent evidence about new variants. The sub-group was asked what modelling they would find useful for her team to produce.

In discussion, the following points were made:

  • going into the next academic year (AY) there are concerns around new variants and the risk that international travel poses; the amount of travel and spread throughout the UK; and the creation of households when students return to accommodation for the new AY
  • proportions of local and international students are considered in this modelling work but this is done by the country as a whole and not on an institution by institution basis
  • there has been a shift in the countries of origin of international students, with increased numbers from South East Asia and West Africa – further iterations of the models should seek to reflect this shift
  • modelling for schools is different to universities in particular due to there being no significant movement of people involved, but may be more useful/comparable for colleges. After the initial return of students, both universities and college populations become, like schools, more integrated into the local community and reflective of wider community transmission and prevalence
  • the diversity of the student population and the institutions themselves must be considered. For example, not all students are full-time; there are a large number who undertake placements outside of the campus, and even overseas; and institutions vary greatly in terms of size and their host populations
  • levels of vaccination uptake vary depending on factors such as deprivation and ethnicity which can lead to inequalities in outcomes, as well as an issue around blame regarding outbreaks. Equalities are embedded in the ‘four worlds’ modelling
  • the differences between halls of residence and the private rented sector would be worth considering although it is very difficult to obtain information relating to the private rented sector, and this issue may need to be looked at separately from the modelling process


  • Carol Tannahill to follow up with Audrey MacDougall regarding what modelling her team can provide initially
  • Scottish Government to follow up with analysts regarding the shifting nature of country of domicile for international students

Overview of situation in 2020-21 Academic Year and current policy

Craig Robertson provided a timeline of events since the beginning of the pandemic up until the move to level 2 for most of Scotland on 17th May, resulting in a move from restricted blended learning to blended learning for most institutions. There is less demand from universities than colleges for students to return to campus for the remainder of this AY. Plans for the next AY are underway with Colleges Scotland and Universities Scotland having provided their planning assumptions papers to Scottish Government. The biggest issue remains 2 metre physical distancing (which could result in considerable online learning next AY if still in place), with vaccinations being another key issue, particularly around international students, but more generally in the challenges of vaccinating a largely mobile population. The mental health of international students isolating upon arrival in Scotland is another important issue and four universities are currently piloting quarantine facilities.

Discussion took place about the importance of ventilation, given the significance of airborne transmission, and whether the group might advise not to use settings that cannot be ventilated. The sub-group considered if this position should be adopted in colleges and universities and agreed that given the position regarding new variants that it would be wise to wait for additional data before confirming this position.

In discussion, the following points were made:

  • there is a need for consistency when considering the treatment of school-age learners in colleges and universities
  • the proposed Physical Distancing Review is expected to report in early June
  • it would be good to understand ‘lessons learned’ and why certain things worked – for example, in accommodation and use of testing
  • the evidence reinforces the importance of a range of mitigations, and that distancing may be able to be reduced if other mitigations are present. Face masks and ventilation are other key factors in preventing transmission. To date, with mitigations in place, transmission has tended to happen in less controlled environments including in accommodation/households and in the community,  rather than in the classroom, learning or research settings
  • interaction and social activity are important aspects of student life, and any advice needs to be realistic and recognise wider impacts and harms. A focus on risk assessment and hazard management may be a preferable approach
  • a definition of ‘lab’ is required given that there are many types of labs in colleges and universities
  • colleges often have students working part-time in a workplace, so early messaging to employers will be necessary


  • Scottish Government to produce a summary ‘lessons learned’ paper for the next meeting
  • Scottish Government to provide a definition of ‘lab’, ensuring a degree of equality across different subject areas. Consideration also required of the wider implication of the Physical Distancing Review and parity with non-educational settings
  • Diane Stockton to consider what data sources PHS could deploy to ensure surveillance of student returns next AY, in a similar way to the schools dashboard

Action plan and priorities

The sub-group concluded that more needs to be known about the variants before recommending changes to distancing restrictions. Overall the sub-group is supportive of easing distancing restrictions in controlled environments, but would need to consider in what settings that would apply.


  • Carol Tannahill to follow up with Audrey MacDougall in relation to  modelling requirements
  • Carol Tannahill to follow up with Paul Flowers and Stephen Reicher to discuss approach to communication and behavioural interventions
  • Scottish Government to speak with Vaccination Policy colleagues regarding presenting at the next meeting of this sub-group as international travel and vaccinations are key issues

Date of next meeting

The next meeting will be held on 8th of June and will focus on vaccinations.

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