University students face living in ‘bubble’ with coursemates and virtual freshers' week amid Covid-19 crisis

David Child
PA

Students may have to live in a “bubble” with people on their course when campuses reopen in the autumn as part of measures being weighed by universities to limit social mixing amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Those arriving at university for the first time could also be faced with virtual freshers’ week events, fewer large-scale lectures and one-way systems across campus in a bid to prevent Covid-19 transmission.

The proposals form part of a Universities UK (UUK) briefing published on Wednesday which confirmed the higher education sector is planning a blended learning approach - featuring a mix of online and face-to-face classes - for the coming academic year.

It came after a poll from the University and College Union (UCU) which found that 71 per cent of applicants would prefer to delay the start of the academic year if they could get more face-to-face teaching.

Professor Liz Barnes, vice-chancellor of Staffordshire University, said her institution is considering grouping students on the same courses in the same accommodation to keep a “bubble”.

Students could also be asked to come in for a day in a smaller assigned group to “minimise movement around campus” and to reduce the number of social interactions, she added.

Professor Barnes, who is also a member of the UUK board to coordinate the sector’s coronavirus recovery work, said other institutions are looking at a similar approach.

She said: “The bubble around accommodation has been discussed across a number of universities, about how best we can bring groups of students together.

“The more that we can keep them into a small group of regular interaction, the better in current circumstances.”

When asked whether universities would regulate what students do in freshers’ week and whether they would discipline students for holding parties, Professor Barnes said: “We don’t expect to have to police it heavily because they are adults and they do understand.

“We have processes if students misbehave in halls, which occasionally they do, we do have disciplinary processes in place and we would just apply those in the same way as we always have in the past.”

Professor Julia Buckingham, president of UUK and vice-chancellor of Brunel University, added: “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.”

While Shearer West, vice-chancellor of the University of Nottingham, said the institution was looking at how to make Welcome Week work within communities of halls of residence “rather than the all-singing, all-dancing, all across the university” experience they had before.

She said: “We’re certainly planning to have people join things and get involved in societies, but we may just have to run freshers’ fair in a different kind of way depending on what the rules are about social distancing.”

Virtual work placements and a greater use of outdoor spaces for classes and extracurricular activities are also among the ideas being considered by universities.

Professor Buckingham said Brunel University would also introduce an optional new January start for international students who may not be able to travel in September, as well as other courses.

But on the UCU findings about students wanting more face-to-face teaching, she said: “I think it’s a very exciting time for students to go to university and I would be encouraging students to think very strongly about the opportunities that a university education provides.”

Universities Minister Michelle Donelan said: “I know this has been a very difficult and uncertain time for students.

“I am pleased universities are making decisions and planning now for how courses might be adapted should restrictions be in place come autumn, providing much-needed clarity to students. Universities UK’s principles will help the sector ensure the health and wellbeing of students and staff remains a top priority.”

The UCU survey meanwhile revealed that nearly half (49 per cent) of university applicants fear cuts made by institutions because of the Covid-19 crisis will negatively impact upon their education.

The poll of 516 people applying to university this year also found that 23 per cent of respondents were worried that their preferred university could go bust because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The deadline for applicants to decide on their preferred university is June 18.

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