Opinion: Scottish Covid-19 Inquiry – Focus on further and higher education

Opinion: Scottish Covid-19 Inquiry – Focus on further and higher education

Fiona Killen (top) and Hazel Moffat

The work of the independent Scottish Covid-19 Inquiry, chaired by Lady Poole, is underway, write Fiona Killen and Hazel Moffat.

Its key aim is to report on lessons learned from the Covid-19 pandemic, balancing the need for a rigorous inquiry with a desire to report as soon as possible on those lessons. The Inquiry will involve 3 phases – the Establishment Phase, Investigation Phase and Reporting Phase.

Introductory academic research – Establishment Phase

As part of the Establishment Phase, the Inquiry commissioned introductory research across its 4 portfolio areas of:

  1. Public Sector Response
  2. Financial and Welfare Support to Businesses and Individuals
  3. The Provision of Health and Social Care Services
  4. Education, certification, impact on children and young people.

The Establishment Phase of the Inquiry included planning for the Investigation Stage. As part of that planning exercise, the Inquiry commissioned introductory academic research to inform the shape and direction of the Investigation Stage, although it is not in any way binding on the Inquiry. The brief sent out by the Inquiry for that research can be read here.

The Inquiry received a research report on portfolio 4, the education and certification portfolio, from a team at the University of Edinburgh.

Key issues in the research report for further and higher education

The research report noted that, in respect of further and higher education, mental health and wellbeing emerged consistently and clearly as significant issues either caused, or made worse, by the pandemic. Overall, a majority of college and university students considered that the Covid-19 pandemic had impacted negatively on their academic experience, as well as making worse the financial challenges of those already experiencing financial hardship.

The research found that some of the most serious impacts of Covid-19 on college and university students served to increase the existing barriers for students from minority and disadvantaged groups and communities. Whilst overall impacts on achievement at college and university were not clear at the time of the research, the report found that early indications suggested a need for close monitoring of this area in order to identify and deal with medium to long term effects.

In relation to the staff of Scotland’s colleges and universities, the report found that the pandemic had a negative impact on both teaching and research. It also found indications that existing barriers for staff from minority and disadvantaged groups and communities had been exacerbated by the pandemic.

Section 2 of the report noted that Scotland’s 19 universities and 26 colleges were instructed to withdraw all face-to-face teaching on 19th March 2020 and move to online teaching where possible. The researchers recognised the creative and innovate approach taken by education providers to pivot to online learning. While this ensured some continuity in terms of service delivery, issues such as lack capacity and resources, gaps in digital skills, poverty and geography meant that the learning experience across the country was inconsistent, to the detriment of the most vulnerable. In particular, lockdown and school closures were found to have exacerbated existing disadvantage, vulnerability and inequality among school pupils.

The research found that, in universities and colleges, high levels of stress and distress already associated with studying were worsened by Covid-19. Many students also faced financial hardship as a result of the impact of lockdown on their employment (e.g., within the hospitality industry). At the same time, students found it more difficult to access mental health support services as a result of Covid-19 restrictions.

The research noted that problems with motivation and concentration were issues generally faced by students as a result of online learning, though many adapted quickly to the new format. However, for students studying courses with a strong practical element (such as construction) or those which require practical placements (such as student teachers), the impact of Covid-19 on their learning experience was more keenly felt.

In terms of attainment at university level, the research suggested that there might be some room for optimism, with the UK’s Higher Education Statistics Authority reporting an increase in the proportion of first-class degrees awarded in 2019/20. This flowed as a result of the “no detriment” approach adopted by a number of institutions to take account the impact of Covid-19 on students.

The report concludes that “the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and consequent institutional restrictions, represent a setback for children and young people in Scotland. .. It is likely that some impacts, not yet visible, may be far reaching and long term. However, we also know that education, as a universal service, remains the most effective means available to improve life chances for children and young people. Like so many other education systems across the world, Scotland responded rapidly to the emergency in March 2020, to ensure continuity of learning as an immediate priority.”

The report invited the Inquiry to investigate all of the above in greater depth, and also to consider the benefit of directly involving young people in decision-making processes during the pandemic and Scotland’s recovery from it.

Next Step for the Inquiry – Investigation Phase

What follows now as part of the Investigation Phase will be likely to include a ‘listening project’ – hearing accounts of the day to day experience of those affected by the Covid-19 pandemic to provide insights, identify lines of investigation and ultimately inform the Inquiry’s recommendations. In the Investigation Phase, we can also expect to see an interim factual record of key elements relating to the handling of the pandemic, e.g. key events and decisions, as well as a call for evidence and submissions, and with oral hearings to take place.

The Inquiry will be supported in its work by a team of lawyers focusing on different portfolio areas, with Inquiry advocates Laura-Anne van der Westhuizen QC and Jonathan Broome as Junior Counsel leading on the education and certification portfolio. However, key contributions need to come from across the entire education sector, in order to inform lessons learned. Those involved in further and higher education should already be considering the level of involvement they intend to have in the Inquiry and in what capacity, including whether they will become a core participant in the critical next step of the Inquiry at Investigation Phase.

Likely participants should ensure that any potentially relevant evidence is protected and ring-fenced from typical document retention or destruction cycles. Internal resource should be identified and prepared accordingly, to support any organisation in assembling relevant evidence, responding to any Inquiry requests and preparing relevant material and submissions. This may include engaging external legal assistance. This preparatory work can be informed by the themes from the research commissioned by the Inquiry and, in particular, the areas indicated within the research for the Inquiry to probe further.

Fiona Killen and Hazel Moffat are both partners at Burness Paull

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