Swansea and Sheffield Hallam universities have announced plans to reopen their campuses at the start of the academic year, in a growing sign the higher education sector is confident it can ensure social distancing on site.
They join Nottingham Trent and Bolton in revealing their plans for September 2020.
Swansea University announced in a statement that all courses will be taught via a mixture of online and face-to-face teaching, with the latter delivered in a “blended format with no large lectures to begin with”.
The university will also conduct an online enrolment, induction and welcome week in September and January. A statement from Swansea said it would liaise with international students about UK quarantine controls nearer the time of their arrival.
Sheffield Hallam has also announced that students will receive a blended learning experience from September. The university said some lectures and assessments will be delivered online, but some socially distanced small teaching sessions and laboratory work would be permitted. Access will also be given to arts studios, specialist teaching facilities, libraries, social spaces and catering outlets.
The chief executive of the Office for Students (OfS) told MPs on 18 May that universities should offer “absolute clarity” about the amount of on-site learning they will offer students before applicants make a choice about where to study next year.
OfS chief Nicola Dandridge added universities should not promise “campus experiences” if it was not realistic to do so.
New measures will be in place to ensure safe practices for getting around campus and we will be guided by the latest government regulations on public gatherings and social distancing
– Sir Chris Husbands, Sheffield Hallam University
Prof Martin Stringer, pro-vice-chancellor for education at Swansea, said: “Swansea University is shaping its delivery to ensure that despite any travel restrictions, and regardless of wherever its students are, it will ensure that all students – whether in Swansea, elsewhere in the UK, or across the world and joining a little later in the academic year when circumstances allow – will be fully part of our university community.
“The health, safety and support of our students and staff are our first priority in all that we do. We will provide more details in the coming weeks to keep people up-to-date with our plans and look forward to welcoming students and staff.”
Prof Sir Chris Husbands, vice-chancellor at Sheffield Hallam, reassured applicants the university would offer an “excellent teaching and campus experience for all”.
“New measures will be in place to ensure safe practices for getting around campus and we will be guided by the latest government regulations on public gatherings and social distancing, with the safety of students and staff remaining our top priority,” he said.
“Further information will be provided as soon as final details are confirmed, but term dates and teaching will begin in line with our already published calendar. For most students that means term will begin on 28 September 2020.”
No further details on either plan have been made available at this stage.
We can’t simply promise to go back to business as usual. Any plans must also extend beyond the lecture theatre and explain how universities will deal with things like peak times, narrow corridors and socialising
– Jo Grady, UCU
Nottingham Trent’s vice-chancellor, Prof Edward Peck, confirmed the university’s intention to reopen its campuses in September in a statement on 19 May. Prof Peck admitted “much of the detail is being worked through” but assured students that NTU will offer “a mixture of on-campus, in-class teaching alongside online learning” from the beginning of the next academic year. He added that all students will have the opportunity to undertake work experience, volunteering and “a host of extra-curricular opportunities”.
Of the universities that have announced plans, Bolton University has the most ambitious scheme to resume campus life. With the use of airport-style walk-through temperature scanners, timetable changes, building schedules and face coverings, Bolton’s vice-chancellor Prof George Holmes reassured students and applicants they would be “able to study and engage in person regularly with other students and staff” on the “Covid-secure” and “fully operational” university campus.
The University and College Union (UCU) has been critical of what it sees as diverging plans.
“Before universities can reopen we need to see much lower numbers of Covid-19 cases, a national plan for social distancing and comprehensive testing. We can’t simply promise to go back to business as usual. Any plans must also extend beyond the lecture theatre and explain how universities will deal with things like peak times, narrow corridors and socialising,” general secretary Jo Grady told University Business last week.
A survey by YouthSight on behalf of the UCU suggests as many as one in five students will defer their places next year if the majority of learning is undertaken online. The Student Room has reported a high number of users discussing their plans, with one student commenting: “I’m due to start uni this September but I’m now seriously considering taking a gap year due to the whole coronavirus situation. I just won’t be doing it if things like freshers’ week, moving into dorms etc are all cancelled, because to be honest that’s all a huge part of university that I don’t wanna miss out on.”
The National Union of Students welcomed measures that ensure student safety, but said all learners must be given the option to defer or retake their studies, or have course fees reimbursed or written off.
“It is important institutions take measures to meet the tests that have already been set for them by teaching unions before they return to in-person teaching. Students need clarity as to what they can expect from the next academic year in order for them to make informed choices and all staff must continue to be paid regardless of this decision,” said NUS national president Zamzam Ibrahim.
The union is also calling for the government to fund a £60m student safety net.
Ms Ibrahim added that ministers must “move quickly to work with the higher education sector to ensure that all students are able to receive quality education next year and have the resources they need to engage with online learning”.