Universities have been much in the news of late. Speaking as the proud father of a fresher, it’s pretty clear that Covid is going to rip through university halls of residence and I’m afraid to say that in two or three weeks’ time questions are going to be asked – not only about whether it was sensible to allow undergraduates back to universities in the first place, but also about universities’ ability to care for a large number of sick young people, many of whom are in self-catered accommodation, some of whom are going to be too ill to look after themselves properly. Many students can’t boil an egg when they’re feeling 100 per cent. Heaven’s knows how they will shop and cook for themselves if they’re knocked for six by the virus.
Many of us have been through the trials and tribulations of GDPR rules and how they apply to students. Our beloved offspring are now adults, and unless they give permission parents are not allowed to speak to the university on their behalf. I know from friends working in universities that this is often a source of great frustration but rules are rules, and they bring important protections to those students who want their lives to remain private.
So this isn’t a complaint about GDPR (although I suspect the universities will be facing many of these in the coming months). But it does present universities with a significant communications issue. On the one hand, you have parents of students who are justifiably anxious and want to know what plans are in place to look after their (adult) children if they get ill. On the other, you have GDPR which means that Universities can’t talk to parents, and indeed they have no contact details for any of them even if they wanted to. I expect that this disconnect will play out in the media – stories of badly looked after students and outraged parents railing about their (perceived) off-hand treatment at the through the press. Inevitably, by obeying the law, universities are going to sustain some reputational damage that is not their fault.
So what is the solution? Given that direct communications are not allowed, we think Universities should consider an indirect approach. The best way to reach parents and reassure them without speaking to them specifically about their loved ones is to set up a website or microsite aimed specifically at them that explains what planning is in place, how students go about getting tests, what will happen if someone gets ill, who parents should speak to if they are worried, and what permissions the students themselves must give in order for these conversations to be permitted. It could also give updates on the corona situation as it occurs which would prevent parents from feeling isolated from the truth. This website could be advertised on the university’s main web page and also by word of mouth through the students themselves – an email to them that says, “we know many of your parents are worried about the Covid situation – here’s a link to a website that you might want to send them so they can stay informed” should do it.
Quite apart from reducing the large volume of phone calls that universities are likely to receive from parents, this approach would position universities as pastorally aware. Parents might not be a university’s number one priority, nor should they be, but the fact is they do care for their recently adult children, many of whom are away from home for the first time, and they are going to need some reassurance in the coming months.