8 June 2020
The University of Bolton on opening its campuses and protecting quality and standards
Professor Patrick McGhee
Assistant Vice Chancellor
University of Bolton
COVID-19 has led to unparalleled global disruption across almost all aspects of society, impacting every person and organisation in the UK. Students and their universities have not escaped the chaos. While back in March, the decision to close campuses was in the end out of the control of higher education providers, the decision as to whether to reopen, and when - and in what way - is a difficult one for institutions. Across the country, students feel uncertain about what is on offer and what it will mean for them as individuals.
So, what has the University of Bolton decided to do, how will it do it and how will it protect quality and standards as it does it?
On 19 May, the University of Bolton was the first in the UK to decide to open its campuses to new and returning students this September.
The Vice-Chancellor, Professor George E Holmes summarised the plan at the time:
Workshops, laboratories and studios will be adapted over the summer to ensure they are Covid-19 secure and can be used as safely as possible, while at the same time enabling staff and students to observe the correct social distancing requirements. We are determined to ensure that the University of Bolton is ahead of the game in transforming its campus to create a place where students feel safe and happy to come to and make the most of their experience of higher education.
As an institution committed to access, we know from research that disadvantaged students from low-income backgrounds do not always have the necessary space or technology at home to study effectively in a way that suits their learning preferences or particular needs.
As an institution, we have welcomed the guidance that QAA have produced over the course of the COVID-19 crisis, particularly the initial guidance issued on 23 March - COVID-19: Initial Guidance for Higher Education Providers on Standards and Quality and Securing Academic Standards and Supporting Student Achievement issued on 7 April, along with the specialist focus on Practice and Lab-based Assessment. These helped us assess our own emerging arrangements against a wider framework.
More recently, we have started mapping our plans for restart against the four principles published on 2 June by QAA in Preserving Quality and Standards Through a Time of Rapid Change: UK Higher Education in 2020-21. It is worth reviewing what we have done and are planning to do under each of these four principles. I will also propose a fifth.
Any move to onsite activity is safe and secure for staff and students
The health and safety of staff and students is the number one priority for all universities. But everyone needs to know what that means in practice. If universities are to invite students back, we need to be as specific as we can about what that will mean for them, their learning and for those that teach and support them.
The University of Bolton recognised that it would not be enough to state that we would be opening in September, or even why we would be opening in September, but also crucially how we would be opening in September. While we knew that there would be operational detail that had to be worked out, and much work to be done to bring the vision about, we felt it essential to provide a clear, accessible vision of what our COVID-secure campus might look like, and what learning in that environment might feel like. And so LearnEd was born - our explainer video owl who walks us through what the Bolton COVID-secure campus actually means in practice. We had no blueprint for this sort of campus model, no one did, but we did have a clear idea what our staff and students would need. We looked at what airports and hospitals have been doing and selected what would work for us. Underpinned by risk assessments across all areas, we have identified what students and staff will need to work safely and effectively.
In this context we have already reviewed the Department for Education (DfE) guidance - Higher education: reopening buildings and campuses - issued on 3 June, and are confident we already complied with its expectations. Indeed, in some areas, we exceed them.
For example, in relation to transport to and from campuses, the DfE guidance simply states:
Transport will be important for students, and for many staff, who need to travel to the campus. Providers may also arrange transport. You will therefore want to have regard to the guidance for passengers and operators. The current advice is to avoid public transport where possible or to take precautions where social distancing is not possible.
However, at the University of Bolton we had already purchased 1,000 bicycles for free use by students. At the time of writing, no other UK higher education institution has made this kind of investment for students in the context of protection from the risks of public transport. This is especially important for our university as many of our students are local commuters to campus.
The Students’ Union President has endorsed the new campus arrangements and has indicated that the vast majority of students welcome the move, with some understandably raising initial questions about how it will all work.
We recognise that students want to have specifics about what their experience on campus might be like, and we have sought to be as detailed as we can. Body temperature scanners (BTS) will provide reassurance and protection in managing the risk of spread of the virus and are already in use at medical education centres in the United States. So, we have purchased BTS equipment for all of our entrances and have already tested them out. Masks, gloves and sanitisers will be available in every building and to every staff member and student. We have already started the process of installing protective Perspex screens to make sure staff can teach safely. One-way pedestrian traffic zoning, personal protective equipment and hardwiring social distancing into learning spaces with fixed seating and other design features will ensure high levels of protection for all on campus.
Put quite simply, if for whatever reason it is deemed unsafe for universities to open in September, or if there are local restrictions that indicate the risk of reopening is too high, then we will not reopen.
Academically, our overall approach is holistic and blended. The aim is to provide students with a fully operational campus environment supported with online learning tools. Communication is important so we have written to every single one of our applicants and returning students to explain the planned new arrangements to them.
Students are likely to be on campus for around 12 hours per week, made possible via a scheduling system that will limit the number of people on campus at any one time. Students will continue to take part in lectures and intensive tutorials on campus in smaller groups where possible. Some lectures that are suitable for a virtual environment will be delivered via video technology such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams - which students and staff have used extensively during lockdown. Personal tutorial sessions will take place on campus, face-to-face within the necessary social distancing parameters but also available online - depending on what each individual student prefers. Practical work within the necessary social distancing parameters will take place on campus in laboratories, arts spaces, creative studios, clinical suites, sports facilities and other specialist facilities. We anticipate approximately 10% occupancy in our laboratories at any one time. Extensive social-distancing measures will be in place to enable students to utilise the library, computer suites, takeaway food and drink services. Student support services will continue to be available to all students face-to-face or online.
Degree-awarding bodies maintain quality and standards in the move to flexible provision
Like all institutions we have sought to ensure that quality and standards are maintained during COVID-19, both in terms of the lockdown and now with the reopening of our campus. We have continued to operate within the parameters of the outcomes-based revised UK Quality Code for Higher Education. We have been able to use the freedom it offers to providers to adapt their approaches while securing academic standards through appropriate teaching, support and assessment. Key to our management of assessment in lockdown and unlocking is the involvement of key stakeholders such as students, external examiners and employers. For example, our 5th annual external examiner conference took place as scheduled this year but online via Zoom. Over 50 externals attended and were able to be briefed and consulted on our arrangements for managing teaching and learning, and quality and standards through student engagement and assessment. As we go forward, our external examiners will, as usual, review the assessment strategies and protocols of all our programmes across the full range of our provision.
We have been in almost daily conversation with our UK and overseas franchise partners and have held regular online meetings with up to 40 partners through our Off-Campus Division.
Providers engage with students and staff in planning changes to delivery and assessment of teaching and learning
We have engaged with students and staff representatives throughout the various phases of COVID-19 and will continue to do so. A good example of this was the joint statement issued by the Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Dr Kondal Kandadi, and the SU President, Ansh Sachdeva, on 24 April to all students confirming our policy on assessment which stated that students would not be disadvantaged due to COVID-19 (we sought to avoid labelling this as a ‘no detriment’ policy as this had come to mean different things at different institutions). The policy and the public statement had been discussed and agreed with the Students’ Union in advance. We continue to listen to the views of students on our plans through our focus groups and daily liaison with the Students’ Union.
Particular attention is being paid to students with special needs and to any students who might be at particular risk of coronavirus infection. We are, for example, in the process of asking students with restricted mobility and other support needs how we can make our COVID-secure campus work for them as individuals. We know from experience that managing learning environments better for those with specific needs typically makes them better for everyone. As a provider with a range of diverse ethnic heritage students, we will seek to ensure through consultation that our arrangements are culturally inclusive. We will be asking all students how the new campus arrangements can work for them most effectively.
We have consulted with staff on our managing of teaching during lockdown and this will continue with the plans for reopening the campus. And it is just the campus that is being reopened - at no point was the University or its operations closed down - our academic and student support operations have continued online. Over the lockdown we have organised multiple online webinars for staff on student support, assessment and learning management, and a specialist session mental health support. Local trade unions have been supportive of the decision to reopen safely and we have benefited from a productive dialogue with them. Between now and September, our National Teaching Fellows and our education, student support and quality specialists will continue running online webinars on effective teaching, assessment and support within a COVID-secure campus. Additionally, we will, of course, be running mandatory safety inductions for all staff before we reopen the buildings for teaching.
We are currently reviewing our Student Protection Plan (SPP), as we do each year, consulting both the SU President and the SU General Manager who are on the SPP Review Panel.
But how does all this impact quality assurance systems? Quite rightly in our view, QAA guidance indicates that the usual processes of institutional approval might reasonably be amended given the need to manage rapid change to some aspects of delivery. (‘What does a proportionate way to assure quality and standards look like?’, p10). It states specifically that:
Pre-2020, most changes made to a programme or module/unit of study could typically go through multiple levels of approval (for example, programme, department/school, quality assurance team, institution, sign-off by responsible officer). This approach ensures the avoidance of as much risk as possible, at the point of approval, by involving the broadest possible range of people at each stage in the process, and by providing significant time for consideration of proposed changes.
The guidance then goes on to state that in the current circumstances, however, 'It is arguable that the right mix of fewer people could make these decisions in a consistent, low risk way'.
At Bolton, we have decided not to go down that route. We have stuck to our existing processes of approval for both new programmes and amendments to existing ones. For example, we have just approved a set of distinctive Careers Masters Programmes in less than six weeks from start to finish and yet all the programmes went through our full quality assurance programme approval regulations, including consultation with students and scrutiny from externals - done entirely online at lower cost and a lower carbon footprint. Similarly, when we moved to online assessments in March for the second semester and now as we plan to re-work some assessments from September, we are doing it through our existing external examiner approval system. We have stuck to our existing processes because there is a danger that once assuring quality and standards becomes a narrow team project, rather than a broad peer process, it may be difficult to get back to the constructive, deliberative conversation that should be at the heart of quality assurance.
In all of this, a particular source of confidence in our systems and practices has been the October 2019 QAA Quality and Standards Review of our provision, which confirmed with high confidence in each case that we met the Core Practices for Admissions (Q1), Complaints and Appeals (Q5), Student Engagement (Q6), and Student Outcomes (Q9).
Providers' planning scenarios are flexible and responsive to students' needs
We now have institutional groups (i) managing the logistics of campus unlock (with a focus on safety and the environment), (ii) supporting innovative blended academic delivery (with a focus on individual learning, achievement and technology), (iii) on timetabling, and (iv) on quality and standards (focused on managed change and consistency). More generally, one key aspect here is the importance of getting the balance right between, on the one hand, thematic groups and on the other, the established infrastructure of academic governance led by a Senate. Both need student representation. Practical thematic groups know the operational reality on the ground but the deliberative structures can stand back and look at the bigger picture.
A fifth principle?
To these four principles I would add a fifth principle: Providers should recognise the need for local disciplinary flexibility. In the context of the management of change at this scale and pace, the central shaping, resourcing, planning, scheduling and leadership is likely to already be a management priority. Crucially, however, at Bolton we continue to recognise the fundamental importance of local, departmental-based solutions developed by staff and students who know their learning culture best. It’s obvious that what works in our highly-regarded English Literature programmes will not necessarily work in our excellent Nursing provision. Less obvious from the centre, is that what works in our Children Nursing programmes might not work in our Community Public Health Nursing. This fifth principle will be increasingly important as professional, statutory and regulatory bodies (PSRBs) start to map their expectations onto the 'new normal' in the delivery of professionally-accredited specialist higher education. Overall this year, PSRBs have generally shown a commendable level of flexibility and pragmatism. Let’s hope that continues.
Students have not just had their education disrupted but the whole world around them disrupted. Disruption, and worse, has been visited upon their families, friends, work, socialising, sport, travel and much else. Beyond that, their futures have been chaotically disrupted and they have seen few solid points of reference to help them navigate that chaos. University education in that context is particularly important - a unique point of reference for students’ own personal development and potentially a compass for the rest of their lives. At the University of Bolton, helping students see a practical model of how they can re-engage with learning and achievement - even in the most unsettling and unexpected circumstances - is what we have tried to do. It has not been and will not be easy; we will undoubtedly not get every aspect right first time. We have not yet finished this work, but we have started, and we believe our initiative has been the right thing to do for our students, for our staff and for all the stakeholders of our institution.