As we approach the new term I thought I would share with you some thoughts about our approach to accommodating students on campus, and to the blended learning strategy which will see all students having regular opportunities for face to face teaching whilst many classes will be delivered online.
Current challenges and our longer-term strategic direction
First of all why have we, in common with many universities around the world as well as in the UK, chosen to adopt this approach? To do that we need only to refer to The Way Forward 2018-23: Recast COVID-19, which, after extensive consultation, was agreed by Council in July. I won’t go through it in detail, but in the light of coronavirus we resolved to focus on five key success factors:
- the health, safety and wellbeing of staff and students
- financial sustainability
- student satisfaction and experience
- research grants and contracts
- and civic mission.
Achieving the right balance is not easy, but the approach we have taken is to recognise that while we cannot eliminate all risk, we can reduce it to an acceptable level whilst meeting the very evident student demand for as much of the campus experience as we can reasonably and safely provide. The University Coronavirus Task Force, which I chair, has been overseeing the huge amount of detailed work which has been taking place over the summer to ensure that we take all possible steps to ensure a COVID-secure workplace that is safe as it can be for both students and staff.
Our response to the Independent Sage and SAGE recommendations
Many of you may have seen the press coverage of the Independent Sage group, which recommended that all teaching should be online until January, with only essential activity taking place in person. At this stage it is not clear what might be different by January, but leaving that aside, you may also have heard that the default position should not be face to face teaching. Let me be absolutely clear that in-person classes are not the default position here at Cardiff. On the contrary, the default position is a blended learning approach where students are offered the opportunity to attend classes where it is safe to do so in accordance with all COVID requirements, with other teaching and learning taking place remotely. Recently the government’s Scientific Advice Group for Emergencies (SAGE) reported on the measures that universities should be taking in order to accommodate students safely. Their report, entitled Principles for managing SARS-CoV-2 transmission associated with higher education, contains much useful guidance on how to prepare for the possibility of increased prevalence of coronavirus in higher education settings, and I am pleased to say that we are very well prepared here at Cardiff University. The highlighting of the importance of face-coverings as a mitigation will come as no surprise, and the need to ensure good ventilation and preserve two metre distancing is well understood. We will continue to provide ample hygiene facilities and promote key behaviours such as frequent hand sanitising.
Managing the risks and supporting one another
Community-minded behaviour is critical. We must remind our students that social distancing and the other behaviours with which everybody is now familiar are critical to protect others, even if they have few concerns about being infected themselves. We are very clear that the introduction of one-way systems in our buildings, of hygiene measures, low volume occupancy and use of face coverings will reduce infection risk to an acceptable level. This will allow us to respond to our students, who want and need some level of personal interaction and of campus experience. I am aware that there are some colleagues who are very keen to come on to campus and some who are not; we have a process to manage that and to offer support as needed. I would refer anybody with concerns about returning to campus to the Welsh government’s COVID workforce risk assessment tool which supports our coronavirus (COVID-19) Organisational Risk Assessment . Just as important is our Community Commitment, which emphasises the need for everybody to observe the key behaviours outlined above.
Our COVID-19 testing service
Where we have a particular advantage is in our ability to conduct population case detection (PCD), whereby we will encourage all asymptomatic staff and students who come to campus regularly to take advantage of our free coronavirus testing service, which uses a saliva test. You can find more information here, but it is important to stress that our aim is to detect any infections, clusters or outbreaks at the earliest possible stage so that we can take action to prevent spread. This is not a substitute for all the other measures that we have put in place, but it will give us added comfort that we will be able to react swiftly if we do see a rise in prevalence in our university community.
Working with the wider community
In preparing for the return of students and the re-opening of research facilities we have consulted and worked closely with the campus unions and with the Students’ Union. All the measures we have taken are in accordance with official guidance and we are working closely not only with Public Health Wales, but with the Welsh government more broadly, with Cardiff and Vale University Health Board and with Cardiff City Council. If you want to find out more about our Safe Campus measures, you can find further detail here. The information has been summarised for external audiences here.
As I said at the outset, finding the balance between keeping risk to an acceptable minimum and offering as good a campus experience as possible is not easy and may require us to flex in response to public health requirements. In particular, we can expect further Welsh government guidance at some point. Unfortunately, coronavirus will be with us for some time and I hope that we can continue to work together to steer this difficult course. Our goal must be to suppress the transmission of the virus as much as possible whilst ensuring the best student experience we can. That in turn will help to support the University as an organisation through this challenging year, allowing us to emerge strongly once the emergency abates. I am confident that our plans will enable us to achieve that goal.
With best wishes