- 30 Sep 2020
Going to university or college is an exciting time for our young people, with many leaving home for the very first time to make lifelong friends, joining new clubs, and learning new things.
But this year is different, and challenging, because we are in the midst of a global pandemic.
And I’d like to say directly to students and all staff in our colleges and universities and student accommodation - thank you.
Thank you for the sacrifices you have made since the start of the pandemic. Thank you for what you are doing to support each other and to help keep everyone safe.
I know it is really hard right now.
It is heart breaking, especially for first years who may have already missed out on once-in-a-lifetime experiences, such as final school exams, proms and traditional freshers’ week.
I know I speak for Parliament and the country when I say to students that I am truly sorry that, due to the pandemic, your introduction to college and university life is not what you, your families – or I – would have wanted it to be.
It’s important students have the opportunity to continue with their learning.
Limiting access to education has a negative impact on their personal development, their wellbeing and life chances.
And our country also needs a stream of talented and trained individuals. And we need our world leading colleges and universities that employ many people and underpin our economy.
That is why we have consistently planned for some face-to-face teaching in colleges and universities as part of a blended return to campus, during phase three of our route map.
This approach is supported by recent SAGE advice which highlights that some sectors, such as research and healthcare, require face-to-face teaching.
It also highlights the impact of remote learning on wider health and wellbeing, stating:
“Changes to the structure of higher education may exacerbate these effects by decreasing the ability of people to make friends, engage in social activities together, gossip and chat, and interact with tutors or mentors, as well as by increasing the difficulty of work and studying.”
That is particularly important for vulnerable students, social inclusion, and for first years, who have already missed out on so much because of Covid.
Against a backdrop of a global pandemic there were no easy, risk free options.
A record number of young people have worked hard for their entry qualifications and had been stuck at home for months and then geared up for going off to college or university and the next stage of their lives.
Along with stakeholders, we decided that asking them to all stay at home and begin their courses online would have inflicted significant harm on them and the wider further and higher education sectors.
The advice also pointed out the risks and likelihood of Covid outbreaks when the new academic year got underway.
We were never advised to keep students at home but we were advised that mitigation factors were vital.
We have worked together with colleges, universities, accommodation providers, unions, and other key stakeholders throughout this crisis on the safe return of further education and higher education.
We issued sectoral guidance which states clearly the rules we expect to be followed, and we have worked extensively to support the sectors in their implementation.
Throughout, we have used the best scientific advice available, including from SAGE, in helping us make decisions on balancing the risks.
That is why our guidance emphasises that colleges and universities should use risk and equality assessments to decide what a blended learning model looks like in their own institutions.
And institutions should be working with their staff and students to discuss any concerns they have about the use of face to face teaching and enabling more online where that can done.
Our guidance also sets out the infection prevention control measures we expect institutions and accommodation providers to have in place.
Importantly, in the context of the current situation, we expect institutions to help students comply with the rules and to support them in doing so – there is a clear duty of care to their staff and students.
It is important to emphasise that any new restrictions we put in place are for the protection of the whole of society.
All of us – students included – are being asked to follow the same rules on socialising and self-isolation.
We published additional guidance last week to inform students wishing to return home of their options and how the new national restrictions apply to student households. It contains advice on returning home for a short visit, returning home while self-isolating and returning home on a more permanent basis.
Our key message encourages students should remain living in their current households and on campus, if they are able to. This will also ensure students can maintain social connections, access student services and face-to-face teaching, where it is taking place.
Crucially, it will reduce the risk of large-scale virus transmission and help keep everyone safe.
While we have no evidence to date of transmission with an FE or HE teaching setting, we do have outbreaks amongst our student population, with significant clusters in university student accommodation.
From the approximately 250,000 students who attend our universities every year, around 45,000 of them usually stay in student halls, with around 43% being first year undergraduate students.
From data received from public health as of today we are in the unfortunate position that 759 of these students have tested positive for Covid and many more are self-isolating.
We are using testing, in line with our published Testing Strategy, to ensure it will have the greatest impact in reducing the risk of disease transmission – by testing those with symptoms so that those with COVID-19 can be identified, be asked to self-isolate, and their close contacts traced.
Test and Protect was ready for the new academic year and is working.
But we are always working to improve access to testing for students and the wider communities.
Kits have been provided and mobile test units dispatched in Glasgow and Dundee. There are now walk through test centres in St Andrews, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Edinburgh, with further centres in Stirling and Glasgow opening in the next week or so and more sites under active development.
We remain mindful of clinical advice about the limitations of asymptomatic testing and the need to prioritise our testing capacity, in line with the Testing Strategy. However, we are exploring the merits of some targeted surveillance testing focused on individual institutions to understand the level of asymptomatic cases.
And to be clear, due to the incubation period of this virus and the testing that is taking place, we expect to see more positive cases in the coming days.
That is why everyone with symptoms should self-isolate, along with their household.
I have heard some excellent examples of how institutions are supporting isolating students, such as providing food, cleaning materials and proactive welfare and mental health support.
But, like others, I have also been disappointed to hear from some who have been struggling to access support or information.
Whether you are a student from Scotland, or elsewhere in the UK, away from home for the first time, or one of the tens of thousands of international students that have chosen to study here and are thousands of miles from home - each and every student deserves the utmost support.
Anything less is wholly unacceptable.
Let me be clear: universities and student accommodation providers have a duty of care to their students. Right now, this is must be their number one priority.
Universities should be providing a gold standard “stay at campus support package” for all students self-isolating. I note that the 19 Higher Education Institutions have this afternoon published a package of measures and I welcome that.
This includes signposting support that is already available – including how to access mental health counselling services funded by the Scottish Government.
And we are actively considering what further support we can give.
Universities should also look sympathetically at students who have left or want to serve notice on their tenancy and re-apply at a future point.
These are extraordinary times and we ask every institution to be extraordinarily supportive and understanding.
We will also work further with student associations to help them engage with students so they have the latest public health advice and know their rights.
I have also asked The National Incident Management Team who are overseeing the outbreaks on campuses to reflect on the experience of recent days to specifically consider what can be done to minimise repeated periods of self-isolation and the general issues around isolation for students often in small rooms in halls.
We are six months into this pandemic, and it is far from over.
In light of the outbreaks and cases among students, we must now redouble our efforts to control Covid-19.
Importantly, we want students to have the option to return home safely at Christmas. We are currently working with the sector on the best approach. This includes looking at public health measures, staggered term end dates, and transport considerations. We will work with the UK Government and other administrations to bring as much consistency across these islands as much as possible.
I want to emphasise that students are in no way to blame for the circumstances we find ourselves in.
The reports I am hearing is that the vast majority of students have coped well in given the circumstances and complied with guidance.
It is often said that until we have a vaccine, we have to learn to live with Covid.
It’s also the case that whilst we have Covid, we must allow our citizens to learn.
And to teach and educate and get on with their lives.
And we must not allow the virus to steal one of the most important years in the lives of our young people.
We mustn’t underestimate how tough it is.
To staff and students, I say again: thank you for all that you are doing to keep yourselves and others safe. And my message to our students is that you are Scotland’s future but we need your help right now. We’re all in this together. So let’s keep working together to get through this.