At risk of stating the obvious, the coronavirus pandemic has impacted all corners of our lives. From the way we date to the way we work, the way we socialise to the way we travel. And as September fast approaches, it’s going to impact the way that first year freshers attend university, too.
With Results Day looming and university offers on the horizon, many students are about to embark on their first year away from home, staying in halls and going to seminars. But what with all that’s going on in the world – and many workplaces encouraging remote working for the rest of the year – what will university actually look like come the new term?
To avoid a large influx of people, many of the universities are staggering their arrivals. Bath are asking new students to book an hour ‘check-in’ date within a 10 day period, while Exeter have said that only one person can accompany the person moving in.
As for the freshers’ week events themselves, the idea of actual in-real-life events going ahead is looking more likely than it did three months ago. Seeing as pubs and bars are reopening with precautions in place, some universities are optimistic about in-person bonding, providing students follow social distancing rules.
For now, mass gatherings are still off the cards, and nightclubs remain shut for the time being. The likes of Newcastle University are holding off making freshers’ week plans until closer to the time, while Bristol’s Student Union confirmed in July that they were taking a “blended approach” towards welcome events, meaning they would be happening both online and in-person, with caps on numbers attending in-person events.
As the situation with coronavirus is so changeable, it sounds like most welcome weeks will be a mixture of ticketed and social distanced events, and virtual meet ups. Sadly foam parties are looking unlikely. Professor Julia Buckingham, president of UUK and vice-chancellor of Brunel University, said in June:
“We’re working very closely also with our students’ union to arrange a whole load of virtual events to make sure that we can guarantee students have social interaction with one another, irrespective of what the social distancing arrangements are at the time.”
A Virtual Freshers Festival has also been set up for 2020, and promises to be “jam-packed with content to lift spirits and make students feel a part of an incredible community.” Elsewhere, institutions are using VFairs – an online platform that allows clubs and societies to upload documents, and interact with students using text, audio, and video chat.
In June, Universities UK outlined their guidelines for exiting lockdown, presenting plans that encouraged universities to create ‘social bubbles’. This would essentially mean allowing students to mix within small groups of people on their course, in the same year group and in the same halls, in a bid to minimise the infection risk from coronavirus.
Bristol university are introducing ‘Living Circles’, a group of students who will be allowed to live, socialise, study and spend time together, across campus and the city. Staffordshire University, meanwhile, are doing something similar – a ‘social bubble’ system will ‘apply wherever they are on campus,’ in a bid to open up university facilities without encouraging mass gatherings.
As for meeting people outside of your ‘bubble’ through typical methods like sports, going out and freshers events? Much of this has been altered to comply with social distancing rules. Universities on the whole seem to be trying to find solutions, such as meeting outside, or taking part of the clubs online, with others waiting to see what the situation is like come September.
The Times reports the majority of British universities students will live in “bubbles” of between six and 13 people.
What with much of the working world going virtual, it probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise that universities are considering the same. In mid-May, Cambridge university announced there will be no face-to-face lectures until 2021, but that lectures will be available to students online and “it may be possible to host smaller teaching groups in person.”
University of Birmingham revealed that ‘online delivery will form a key element of our resilient provision’ and that ‘all core lectures must be delivered online’, while Edinburgh, Warwick, Bristol, Manchester and UCL have shared similar messages.
That said, the amount of in-person teaching will vary by subject, mainly because degrees in medicine or science, with laboratory-based work, tend to need more face-to-face teaching than arts subjects. The general consensus seems to be larger scale lectures, or lessons that previously involved 25+ students in one room, will now go virtual, while seminars and smaller study groups may eventually be allowed.
The majority, if not all, universities expect staff and students to maintain social distancing wherever possible when moving around campus, and will increase hand sanitiser and washing stations in shared spaces. The likes of Lincoln and Exeter are also introducing one way systems, including entrances and exits, in a bid to limit spread.
The number of people on campus at any one time is also likely to be less. Not only down to virtual learning, but because of a potential decrease in students. New independent research from the University of Leicester found 41 per cent of 2,000 surveyed UK students are considering deferring their places until 2021 because of uncertainty over online courses and safety.
In official advice from the Department of Education, the government explained, ” It may be appropriate to consider reopening low-density buildings first as a phased way of extending access to the campus while safeguarding the needs of staff and students.”
They’ve also asked that universities “implement a range of protective measures including increased cleaning, reducing ‘pinch points’ (such as at the start and end of day), and utilising outdoor space.”
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