Scotland’s universities are gearing up for students returning for the new semester in September, however this year’s freshers' week is likely to be unrecognisable from what had been the Scottish norm. In this update, we examine the changes and considerations required by universities in this new normal.
Scotland’s universities are unique communities and institutions and so there are no blanket prescriptions on how they should manage the risks presented by COVID-19. It is expected that each university will work with its students, trade unions and staff to follow the guidance provided by the Scottish Government , UK Government and Universities UK.
Universities UK, the sector’s representative body, has published a document setting out key principles and considerations for universities to apply at each phase as restrictions ease. The principles emphasise the priority of the health, safety and wellbeing of students, staff, visitors, contractors and the wider community when making decisions.
The principles also cover changes required to meet with public health measures, the wellbeing of students and staff, international students, cleaning, hygiene, research and the importance of consultation. The principles encourage flexibility and regular reviews of processes to successfully manage the risks and continue to deliver learning and services.
A further set of principles has been agreed between the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) and the UK sector trade unions which include Scottish universities and Scottish unions. The UCEA principles stress that compliance with government guidance on COVID-19 and existing health and safety legislation is the minimum standard for universities to achieve.
A well-considered risk assessment with suitably implemented control measures is a key step in health and safety compliance. Higher education institutions will already have risk assessments in place across their departments and services, however it is important that these risk assessments are reviewed in light of the new risks presented by COVID-19, and that any changes implemented as a result of the pandemic are also assessed. Following assessment of the risks, suitable control measures to remove or minimise the risks should be identified and implemented. The risk assessment and subsequent control measures should be communicated to staff and students.
The fast-developing nature of the pandemic and the changing requirements as we move through the phases of the route map mean it is vital that the risk assessments are regularly reviewed. Institutions should keep copies of each version of the risk assessments to demonstrate compliance and to justify the measures taken at particular stages.
There remains a requirement for employers to consult their workforce on health and safety arrangements. There should be a consultation regarding the risk assessment with health and safety representatives appointed by trade unions, employee appointed representatives, or employees directly. The UCEA principles note that unions will support a risk-based approach and will assist with communicating with their members regarding the control measures.
How control measures will affect different groups should be considered, particularly those with protected characteristics. Institutions should consider if any adjustments are required to fulfil their obligations under equalities legislation.
Public Health Measures
Following the risk assessment process, higher education institutions should put in place measures to support and protect public health. They should consider the capacity of their facilities; any requirements for personal protective equipment and the sourcing of this; protocols around shared equipment and spaces; and particular circumstances of staff and students, including any shielding or isolation requirements.
Remote working and learning remains the Scottish Government advice for work and study, until phase four, where remote and flexible working will be encouraged. If working/learning remotely is not possible, then physical distancing (currently of two metres) should be implemented across all parts of campus. Institutions can use capacity limits; one-way systems; signs; and staggered working and shift patterns to limit interactions.
A robust cleaning regime will be an essential part of minimising transmission risk. There should be routine cleaning using products which are active against bacteria and viruses. Commonly touched objects (such as door handles) should be cleaned at least twice daily. Should there be a case, or a suspected case of COVID-19, Health Protection Scotland has published guidance for non-healthcare settings which covers environmental decontamination.
The provision of hand washing facilities and hand sanitising stations throughout campus, and particularly at entrances and exits, will be another key measure to consider.
Adequate bathroom facilities will be important for students returning to campus. The Scottish Government has published guidance on the opening of public toilets which should be followed together with the sector specific guidance. This recommends an increased cleaning regime, the removal of any reusable equipment and a capacity limit to allow for physical distancing.
The wellbeing of staff and students may have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Factors such as returning to campus or adapting to work and learn remotely may impact staff or students' mental wellbeing. Wellbeing should therefore be an important consideration for higher education institutions.
Open communication with staff, students and trade unions will be crucial in managing wellbeing. Institutions should provide reassurance and share the measures that they have put in place to manage risks. It is also important to use communication to keep staff and students alert to the symptoms of COVID-19 and how to respond should they become symptomatic while on campus.
Individuals who have been shielding were able to return to work from 1 August, however, they may still need additional support to adjust to returning to work. Employers should ensure that, in addition to supporting the wellbeing of clinically vulnerable staff, they are strictly following guidance in relation to physical distancing and hygiene to protect these individuals.
International students and staff are incredibly important to Scottish universities as are the many cross border projects our universities work on. Higher education institutions should therefore stay alert to changing guidance in relation to international travel. They should take steps to ensure that they are supporting international students and staff with their return to Scotland and any required isolation periods.
It is one of the agreed principles from UK Universities that they will develop effective processes to welcome and support international students, staff and visitors, including throughout any self-isolation period.
If there is an outbreak, the institution should inform its local NHS Board Health Protection Team (HPT). The HPT will undertake a risk assessment and conduct a rapid investigation, determining the most appropriate action to take. An institution should suspect an outbreak where there has been either i) two or more linked cases (confirmed or suspected) of COVID-19 in a setting within 14 days, where cross transmission has been identified; or ii) there is an increase in staff absence rates, in a setting, due to suspected or confirmed cases of COVID-19.
Institutions should also make sure that staff and students are aware of Test and Protect and follow the guidance. Efforts should be made to ensure staff and students do not have to, or do not feel they have to, return to campus if awaiting a test or are in isolation.