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Student News

Coronavirus: What will university be like in 2020/21?

There's been a lot of confusion recently about what we might see happening at universities next year. But you'll be glad to know that we've found out some of the planned changes...

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UPDATE (6/8/20): Some uni students will be banned from having overnight guests. More info here.

Whatever your plans are for the next academic year – whether you're starting uni as a fresher, returning for another year or taking a year out – you won't be alone in wondering what university will be like in September.

To find out more, we sat down (i.e. had a video call) with a few representatives from Universities UK, an organisation that acts as the collective voice of 137 unis across England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

Here's what we found out...

If you haven't already, check out our guide to the impact of coronavirus on students for advice on things like accommodation, travel and more.

Will university teaching be online in September?

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You may have heard reports that teaching at some universities will be delivered online next year, but it's important to note that many universities are actually planning to offer some classes on-campus, too.

Rather than teaching entirely in-person or entirely online, many unis are instead considering a 'blended' approach to teaching...

What is blended learning?

Blended learning combines both online and in-person teaching.

Of course, it's difficult to know what social distancing measures will be in place in September, but it's unlikely that huge lectures packed with loads of students will be possible. Therefore, it's probably no surprise that universities are planning to run lectures online in September.

However, it's starting to look like it could be possible for small classes to meet in person as long as social distancing measures are followed.

The extent to which you could expect your course to be taught online and in-person will vary depending on what and where you're studying. It's worth getting in touch directly with your uni to get a better idea of how they'll approach teaching in the new academic year.

For in-person classes to take place, universities might implement other changes to ensure students are as safe as possible on campus, such as new one-way systems in corridors and safety protocols for visitors.

It's worth noting that, even if your course is taught online next year, it's been confirmed that you will still need to pay full tuition fees. We look into whether students will be getting good value for money below.

UPDATE – Most universities plan to offer in-person teaching

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A recent informal survey by Universities UK asked unis if they're planning to offer some in-person teaching in the autumn term – and a huge proportion confirmed that they are.

Out of the 92 universities that responded to the survey, 89 said that they intend to provide in-person teaching during the first term of the 2020/21 academic year.

This means that, as 97% of the surveyed unis confirmed this, it looks like the majority of students can expect to have at least some classes on campus in September.

Additional plans by universities for the autumn term

Many universities also plan to offer some support services in-person. These services include mental health support, study skills and careers advice.

87 of the 92 unis in the survey said that they intend to provide these services using a combination of online and in-person services. The remaining five plan to offer the services online.

And, will there be social opportunities for students? Quite possibly! 78 universities said they plan to offer things like outside events and sporting activities in-person, in keeping with government and public health guidance.

The survey found that 90% of the unis that responded have communicated their plans to current and prospective students. The remaining 10% should do so very soon.

Alistair Jarvis, Chief Executive of Universities UK, said:

Universities across the UK are well advanced in their planning to welcome students this autumn and ensure they can benefit from a high-quality, full and exciting university experience.

Following the latest health guidelines, universities are continuing to develop detailed plans for the new academic year and will be regularly updating new and returning students over the coming weeks.

Although their first term will be different from previous years, most students can expect significant in-person teaching and a wide range of social activities and support services. Universities are committed to providing an engaging academic and social experience for all while ensuring the safety and welfare of the whole university community.

Will it be safe for universities to teach face-to-face in September?

The NUS recently asked 1,067 students whether they feel safe returning to university for face-to-face teaching. Here are the key findings from the survey:

  • Over a third said they wouldn't feel safe at all with face-to-face teaching in September 2020
  • 13% (less than one in seven) said they wouldn't feel safe at all with face-to-face teaching in January 2021
  • 22% would feel extremely safe to enter/return to uni accommodation in September
  • Around 90% of students would feel safe if they were taught exclusively online.

Interestingly, if around a third of student wouldn't feel safe having face-to-face teaching in September, it therefore looks like the majority of students would.

But for those who are worried about in-person contact in the new academic year, the NUS highlights that it's essential for universities to do what they can to put students at ease.

Larissa Kennedy, president of the NUS, said:

Student safety must be the priority for anyone making decisions as to how campuses are planning to reopen in September.

The government must work with colleges and universities to provide clarity as to how they will keep students safe.

These results make it clear that many students will be nervous about their return to education and need reassurances that institutions will be acting in their best interests.

How will university halls change for social distancing?

university halls of residence

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For anyone who's ever lived in halls, it's quite tricky to imagine social distancing while living in them. But, we've found out about some planned changes to university accommodation that could actually allow students to live in them safely despite the pandemic.

Students can expect cleaning in halls to be stepped up. And, interestingly, a major change that's been proposed is a 'bubble' approach.

Students might stay in a protective 'bubble'

As the name of this approach suggests, students would effectively be kept in a bubble (metaphorically speaking, obviously).

One way that this approach could work is that students will be allocated places in halls so that they're living with people from the same course, minimising the contact they have beyond a relatively small group.

Discussing the bubble approach, Universities UK said:

We know that a number of universities are considering looking at how students can initially live and study with the same group to minimise mixing within the autumn term.

This is just one of many social distancing approaches that are being explored across the sector to ensure that universities can protect staff and students while providing in-person teaching where possible. This is also an approach being explored internationally by countries including New Zealand.

Could it impact life on campus as well?

Across the sector there is work to consider how to enable in-person activities. This includes timetable adjustments and using the estate differently to maximise capacity while social distancing measures are in place.

The approaches will rightly vary depending on the geographical location, student mix, types of courses – and [...] the social distancing requirements may well change in advance of the start of term which would make a significant difference.

Example of a university using the bubble approach

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While it's not yet been confirmed how many universities will use the bubble approach, one uni that's confirmed they will is Staffordshire University.

As well as placing students from the same course together in accommodation, Staffordshire University are also planning to offer rooms in halls to fewer students – in fact, only two-thirds of their halls will be occupied.

To put that into context, their biggest student flats usually house 12 people, but next year, they will only include eight.

While this, of course, raises concerns about where students will live if they don't get places in halls, Staffordshire University do say on their website that, if students can't get places in halls, other accommodation will be organised with trusted providers.

Professor Liz Barnes, Vice-Chancellor at Staffordshire University, said:

The health and wellbeing of our university community has to be our number one priority and in common with other universities throughout the sector, we are creating a framework in which students can live and study in a supportive learning environment which limits the risk of infection.

At the same time we have to ensure a first class university experience and that remains our intention.

Additional changes to university life in September

UCL campus

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There's more to uni life than just where you live and what you learn – so what other changes will universities make in September?

For starters, it's been suggested that freshers' week will look very different from previous years. It may be that your university offers events online, or there may be an attempt to run some events in person if the group sizes are small enough to allow for social distancing.

Also, students could still be able to sign up for societies in welcome week.

In terms of socialising, though, the rules at uni will be the same as elsewhere and you'll be expected to follow the government's guidelines.

And, as for other changes, Universities UK give detailed guidance for unis. Among this advice, there are suggestions that universities:

  • Ensure students can access support services, particularly for mental health
  • Take action to prevent feelings of loneliness and isolation among students and staff
  • Support students who experience 'digital poverty' (a lack of technology)
  • Help those who don't have access to a good study space at home.

Some students won't be allowed overnight guests

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You may have heard it reported that sex will be banned for freshers in 2020/21 – but, right now, it looks like only a small minority of universities are introducing these measures, and even then it generally applies to 'overnight guests', not including people in the same flat.

One example of a university that has decided to not allow students to have overnight guests is the University of East Anglia (UEA). A spokesperson from UEA told us:

The university's priority remains the safety of our students and staff.

In light of COVID-19 pandemic the decision has been taken not to allow overnight guests from outside the student household. These regulations are part of the licence agreement for student flats which is enforced through the university's terms and conditions.

This decision will be kept under review.

As it'll be kept under review, it's hard to know at this point how long the rules will be kept in place, but it's important to bear in mind that it is in the interest of safety.

Whether or not to ban overnight guests is something that's decided by individual universities, so it's worth getting in touch with your uni directly to see if the rule will apply to you.

We spoke to Universities UK to find out more about the news. A UUK spokesperson said:

When making decisions to ensure student safety, universities will take a flexible and agile approach which is based on their local circumstances and the latest health advice.

All UK universities will follow government and public health advice as well as committing to a set of principles for the safe re-starting of activities, working with student unions and students who are also expected to follow the latest guidance and any university codes of conduct.

It is critical that universities keep current and prospective students regularly informed on their plans for 2020/21 so that students fully understand the steps their chosen university will be taking to provide them with a positive, engaging and high-quality experience.

Will students receive the same value for money?

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As we mentioned earlier, it's been confirmed that tuition fees will remain the same in the next academic year, even if teaching remains online.

We wanted to know how students felt about this. So, between 15th May – 3rd June 2020, we partnered up with MoneyMagpie to ask almost 1,000 students about their thoughts on the impact of COVID-19 on their studies.

In the survey, we asked students if they think tuition fees should be lowered to reflect reduced contact time and increased online learning elements. The results were:

  • 87.4% think they should be lowered
  • 6.4% are unsure
  • 6.3% think they should stay the same.

It's a pretty big majority who think tuition fees should go down...

We asked Universities UK what advice they'd have for students who are concerned they won't receive the same value for money for their degree, given the planned changes. They said:

New and returning students can be confident that universities will be providing high-quality, accessible and engaging teaching and learning this autumn.

Universities will provide as much in-person learning, teaching, support services and extra-curricular activities as public health advice and government guidance will support.

Although it is likely that there will be some changes to how a degree is delivered initially because of public health requirements, we are hopeful that this will only be the case for a small part of students' time at university.

Where support for learning is active and ongoing, UUK has explained that students should not expect any fee refund from their university, and this has been confirmed by the Universities Minister on several occasions.

To students who are unhappy with the quality of teaching at uni, Universities UK suggest:

Students who are not satisfied with the support they are getting should make this known to their university in the first instance.
UK universities are totally committed to providing students the world class university experience that they need to succeed and for which our universities are renowned globally.

If you do wish to complain and potentially seek compensation over the quality of your degree, check out our full guide for more info.

As the situation's constantly evolving and new info's been announced by universities since our survey (particularly about face-to-face teaching returning), we'd expect students' views to have changed.

If you're heading to uni in September, make sure you have a read through our 'what to take to university' checklist.

Laura Brown

WRITTEN BY Laura Brown

Laura Brown, Head of Editorial at Save the Student, is an award-winning writer with expertise in student money. She project manages influential national student surveys and has presented findings to MPs in Westminster. As an expert on student issues, Laura has been quoted by the BBC, the Guardian, Metro and more.
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