News writer Heidi Linton looks at how universities are planning to open in September, including the introduction of ‘social bubbles’

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UK universities have suggested that the reopening of campuses in September 2020 will be accompanied by physically distanced ‘social bubbles.’

To help reduce the risk of rising coronavirus infection rates, social mingling could be limited to groups of students from the same course or year group. This would apply to those attending campus and students who intend to move into halls of residence. A one-way system may also be implemented for staff and students on campus. 

The Vice-Chancellor of Staffordshire University, Liz Barnes, told The Guardian that the ‘social bubble’ system ‘applies wherever they are on campus,’ restricting the extent of social interactions while still enabling access to campus facilities. 

The social bubble system applies wherever they are on campus

Already, more than one third of school leavers are doubtful about their original decisions to attend university in the autumn, with an estimated one in five students intending to defer their studies. Consequently, universities are apprehensive of a £76m shortfall in funding, prompting their guarantee that the education of prospective students will remain at a high standard.

Universities are eager to point out that they do not intend to be exclusively online, rather that they plan to combine small tutorials on campus with larger online virtual lectures. 

Julia Buckingham, the Vice-Chancellor of Brunel University, outlined these plans for her university during a briefing on university guidelines. Buckingham expressed her desire to ensure that the student experience at Brunel would closely parallel the experience students initially applied for. However, exact plans will fluctuate depending on future  government provisions.

The University of Birmingham (UoB) has similarly revealed that ‘online delivery will form a key element of our resilient provision’ and that ‘all core lectures must be delivered online.’ 

Online delivery will form a key element of our resilient provision

If space is available on campus, some seminars, labs and other small sessions will take place physically. The University has additionally demonstrated awareness that all year groups will require access to ‘increased academic support.’

The annual tradition of university freshers’ week may also be moved online, composing of virtual meet-and-greet events and activities. The University of Nottingham’s vice-chancellor, Shearer West, informed The Guardian of her plan to hold a condensed freshers fair, providing it can abide by government guidelines. 

Exams are likely to be taken online across the UK in a manner not dissimilar to the present academic year. There is also suggestion that students without access to the necessary technology or broadband connection could be given the option of being assessed in person.

In a poll of 516 university applicants, conducted by the University and College Union, nearly three-quarters of the participants claimed their preference for a later start to the academic year, providing that face to face teaching will be possible. 

Brunel University is hoping to offer all international students an optional January start date on some of the bigger undergraduate and postgraduate courses if they are unable to travel in September.

However, Julia Buckingham stated that students should not expect refunds if they are unsatisfied with their academic experience. This comes as a result of the substantial sum the universities are investing in campus renovations, online education and enhanced mental health support.

Prospective Brunel student Emily Lynch told the BBC:  ‘as much as university is about higher education, it is [also] about the social side,’ adding, ‘It definitely won’t be the same experience.’ 

Another prospective student, Logan Cosgrove, claimed that ‘I did not sign up to do an online course, but I totally understand the reasons why.’

The Vice-President of the National Union of Students, Claire Sosienski Smith,  praised the provisions that universities are already putting into place.  She said: ‘We welcome measures that prioritise students’ safety. It is important institutions take measures to do this in light of the ever changing pandemic. Students need clarity as to what they can expect from the next academic year in order for them to make informed choices.’


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