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From the file

Universities in crisis | Years after the graduation ceremony, what really endures about the university experience is the memory of a communal life, away from home for the first time. But life on campus, like so much else, cannot return as it was.

Safe space?

Safe space?

Making campuses covid-secure is a complex problem and good information is hard to find

University life is not conducive to infection control: students live cheek-by-jowl in halls, crowd into lecture theatres by the hundred and cram themselves into poky seminar rooms. How will that all work? And what, exactly, does social distancing look like in freshers’ week?

Why this story?

Should you stay or should you go? Students are facing the prospect of a return to campus – or a first experience of university – quite unlike anything in the brochure.

At least one university is making masks compulsory, Cambridge has sent all lectures online and others are trying to find a way to make lab work viable.

Here, we try to gather all of the information together in one place, to see how universities are working to reassure students. David Taylor, editor

The threat of Covid-19 has not abated and as a new academic year looms, universities are planning how to best manage the influx of students while keeping them – and their staff – safe from the coronavirus, as well as making it an experience worth paying for.

Delayed starts

Several universities have delayed the start of term by a few weeks in the hope that buying extra time will mean lower infection rates. Lincoln University and Dundee have delayed Freshers’ Week by three weeks, Aberdeen and Glasgow Caledonian by two, while the Vice Chancellor of Sussex, Adam Tickell, said in the Sunday Times that the university is considering staggering the arrivals of different groups of students.

Essex has introduced several postgraduate courses with start dates in January 2021, while those studying on courses with October start dates will be allowed to study online until they are able to travel to campus.

Online learning

Lockdown brought with it a mass experiment in online learning for universities. Some elements of teaching can be managed adequately over the internet – lectures, seminars and so on. Most universities will continue delivering classes online in the new academic year. Earlier in May, Manchester University was the first to announce that all lectures in the first semester would be taught online. Cambridge followed suit last week, announcing that all lectures will be held over the internet until the summer of 2021, with small group tutorials offered in-person where possible.

Other universities are more optimistic that in-person teaching will be able to resume. Glasgow, Oxford, Warwick, Newcastle, Essex, Leeds Beckett, Queen’s University Belfast and the University of East Anglia (UEA), among others, are all intending to provide a “blended” or “hybrid” model of in-person and virtual teaching.

The entrance to a laboratory at the National Graphene Institute facility, part of the The University of Manchester

But with university libraries and computer labs closed, many students are struggling to access adequate broadband or the technology needed for online learning to work. Manchester Met and Goldsmiths are appealing for donations to their hardship funds so that they can supply laptops to students who need them. The University of the West of England is offering grants of up to £300 for students without access to the requisite IT equipment and the University of the Highlands and Islands has set up a new fund to assist students with access to laptops and broadband, they have already loaned laptops to 40 students.

Social distancing

Courses involving lab work, medical and veterinary training, music tuition and teacher training are a few of the areas where virtual teaching doesn’t work so well. For these subjects, the practical skills that students acquire are as important to their learning as their lectures.

Universities need to work out how to teach hands-on classes safely. By and large, that will mean preparing themselves to make social distancing possible on campus and in classes.

The University of Bolton has one of the most comprehensive plans for creating a safe, socially-distanced learning environment. According to the Manchester Evening News, they are planning to reopen in the autumn with labs and classrooms reconfigured to make distancing easier and a system of “airport-style” temperature scanners at entrances. Face masks will be compulsory on campus and the university will provide additional bikes so that students can avoid public transport.

Other universities are taking a staggered approach to the return. Wolverhampton and Manchester are two universities seeking to carry out a phased reopening of sites on campus. Wolverhampton’s vice chancellor told local press that the university is “looking at a gradual return” with a plan that prioritises some buildings over others.

Manchester has announced plans to allow some researchers back into labs, provided the buildings have been physically prepared to allow for social distancing. Only a limited number of people will be allowed in each building and each lab, however. The university will prioritise those who need to complete research projects for grant funding applications and final year PhD students.

Leeds is expecting social distancing to be in place “throughout the summer and autumn, and perhaps for longer still,” according to a staff document seen by The Tab, a student newspaper.

Years abroad

The year abroad is a critical period for language students and a big part of the attraction for studying languages. Many students work or study in-country on their year abroad but with travel restrictions in place and the threat of a second wave of the coronavirus, it’s uncertain whether they’ll be able to go.

At De Montfort, Kent and UEA, travel abroad for language courses and international placements are expected to go ahead, although other universities have postponed them. Edinburgh and King’s College London have moved to delay the start of all years abroad until early next year.

Over 70 UK universities are members of the University Council of Modern Languages. Earlier in May, they convened discussions about the possibilities and practicalities for a “virtual year abroad”. Their current guidance states that member universities will try to get students abroad where possible.

Where travel won’t be permitted, universities will offer students ‘virtual alternatives’ such as online language exchanges, group translation projects for foreign employers and increased language learning support.


Most universities only guarantee places in halls of residence to first year students. There is little information out there about what universities are planning to do if new students can’t take up their place in halls in the autumn. But some of the actions universities have taken so far might provide a clue. Many universities have waived fees, reduced them or cancelled contracts for students who have left their halls.

Unite Students, one of the largest providers of student accommodation, has released students living in their properties from their contracts early. They are looking at introducing flexible contract arrangements and start dates for the beginning of the 2020/21 academic year.

International students

For foreign students arriving in the UK, the term often starts earlier than for others. Some universities offer international students an extra week to settle in and many universities give pre-sessional English courses for students who have a different first language. These are going ahead in the main, although universities are looking at how to deliver them online.

Visas and travel have naturally been a big concern for international students. The UK government granted visa extensions to all international students who were unable to travel back to their home country because of the virus, although the extension is set to end on 31 July. There are no indications yet whether there will be similar flexibility on start dates for international students heading to university in the autumn.

Illustration by Natsko Seki

further reading

Studying at home isn’t always easy. The Times Higher Education supplement has some practical information about how to make it more bearable.

Student newspapers like The Tab have been a vital resource for students seeking information about their university’s approach to the next academic year. They surveyed 30 universities about their policies, check out the list here.

Back in April, the Guardian spoke to several universities about the possibility of an online Fresher’s week. Here’s what they had to say.

WonkHE, the blog which leads the way on higher education policy, has excellent coverage of Covid-19 – including the warning from Australian unis that students will need to stay sober and not party.