Universities UK (UUK) has published “high-level principles” for universities to consider before they re-open campuses this autumn, as the organisation’s president vowed that learners “can look forward to a positive student experience” next year.
In a press conference attended by Prof Shearer West, vice-chancellor of the University of Nottingham, and Prof Liz Barnes, vice-chancellor of Staffordshire University, the UUK president and Brunel University vice-chancellor Julia Buckingham told reporters that universities were investing heavily in digital tools to ensure students’ expectations were met, amid concern one in five applicants may defer their place next year.
“UK universities are committed to providing the same world-class experience for which UK higher education is known in the new academic year,” Prof Buckingham said, adding that providers would offer a blend of online and face-to-face teaching.
“That means learning in a digital environment will be a feature of the university experience if public and social distancing advice remains as it is now. But that’s not something new. Universities have been supplementing face-to-face teaching with digital materials and other learning opportunities for some time,” she explained.
She added that, before the Covid-19 lockdown, her own university had been designing “dual delivery” learning tools and begun a four-year transition to online-only exams for all students.
Applicants ‘fazed’ by online learning
Pushed on whether the UUK guidance would persuade wavering prospective students, Prof Buckingham said: “I would say that the experience we’re going to offer to students is very exciting.”
“It is going to be different and it would be wrong to say it would be anything other than different. We’d all like to be back where we were last autumn, but we’re not. So, I think this is a very exciting time for students to go to university. They will have, I think, an excellent learning experience.
“I know quite a lot of people are fazed by the term ‘online learning’ and I think it is very important we dispel the image that students spend a long-time reading stuff on the web. There is some extraordinarily exciting digital learning available now, which our universities are working very hard to deliver. We have been delivering quite a lot for quite a long time and we are investing a lot of money in it.”
She added that universities were also investing in digital student mental health and wellbeing tools.
New guidance released for re-opening universities
The new guidance published today was neither “prospective nor exhaustive”, explained Prof West, but rather offered universities a guide for how to prepare. She said government guidelines might change, or necessitate further lockdowns, meaning general guidelines were more helpful to senior leaders.
The 21-page guidance includes nine principles, which cover health and safety; changes to infrastructure; social distancing; teaching, learning and assessments; supporting mental health; international students; hygiene and cleaning routines; risk assessments; research and laboratory staff; working with trade unions; and working with civic and local partners.
Universities have been told to consider providing an early warning system to identify possible Covid-19 incidents and ‘student bubbles’ to minimise cohorts mixing with each other.
Prof Barnes explained that Staffordshire University will implement a policy of “student bubbles” to ensure social distancing across the university community. Students will be grouped in halls by cohort and will visit the campus for timetabled “intense days” of face-to-face teaching, before staying away from campus for a period of self-isolated distance learning. Several other universities, like Keele, were also considering the initiative, she added. Staffordshire is also considering virtual work placements and offering students catch-up time in the new academic year.
Prof Buckingham said the changes in universities could lead to benefits for some learners. The widespread use of open-book, online exams meant universities were regarded as “a good move”, in her mind, because they tested students’ understanding rather than their memory.
Prof Barnes added that staff at Staffordshire were “excited” to redesign their assessment practices, which had facilitated conversations about the best ways to measure success in certain subjects like the performing arts. Prof Barnes added that many commuter students, who make up a significant proportion of Staffordshire students, valued more distance learning.
“I suspect this might be a change in the way education is delivered,’ the UUK president continued, “and we are discovering exciting new ways of delivering teaching.”
“Students want more, small group teaching, more interactive learning, they really want to engage with teachers. They don’t particularly enjoy sitting in a lecture theatre being talked at,” she said.
It is important that universities do not try to carry on with ‘business as usual’ plans and do not attempt to bring students and staff members back onto campuses too early
– Claire Sosienski Smith, NUS
Responding to the announcement, NUS vice-president for higher education Claire Sosienski Smith, warned that “students need clarity” before they make a decision about where to study. The Ucas deadline for students to reply to university offers is 18 June – and most providers have not yet published plans.
“It is important that universities do not try to carry on with ‘business as usual’ plans and do not attempt to bring students and staff members back onto campuses too early. Students must be consulted with as part of this process and it is crucial for universities to work with their students’ unions to facilitate the reopening of campuses, when it is safe to do so,” Ms Sosienski Smith added.
So far, UCL, Bolton, Bristol, Keele, Manchester, Nottingham Trent, Sheffield Hallam and Swansea universities have confirmed plans to reopen campuses, with all favouring some form of blended learning, but with varying detail on how student halls and face-to-face contact time will be managed.