When will universities open again? Where students fit into the Government road-map

Since university students arrived on campus for the 2020-2021 academic year, their lives have been very different to what they were expecting. Smaller class sizes, online lectures and virtual freshers’ events; the impact of the pandemic on student life has been far-reaching.

Now, under Boris Johnson’s roadmap to exit lockdown[1], schools and further education settings will be the first to reopen from March 8, in Step 1 of his four-part plan. Here’s everything you need to know about what the roadmap means for university students. 

What are the new Covid rules?

On February 22, Boris Johnson announced the ‘roadmap out of lockdown’, with predicted dates for the reopening of schools[2], non-essential shops[3] and easing of social distancing[4] restrictions.

In his announcement to the Commons, he mentioned that schools and further education settings will be the first to reopen, in Step 1 of his four-part plan, from March 8.

University courses which require practical teaching and on-site assessments will welcome students back from March 8. However, all other courses will need to continue being taught online – and it is not clear how long this will last.

Until now, the country has been in a strict national lockdown. All primary and secondary schools have been closed and GCSE and A-level exams face cancellation for a second year in a row.

Will students be tested for coronavirus?

For students who will be returning to face to face learning, upon arrival they are offered Covid [5]tests, including two lateral flow tests, three days apart, with results turned around within the hour.

What does a typical week look like for students otherwise?

The current lockdown does not allow university students to go to one another’s households and staying at home is encouraged except for education.

Universities are under orders to prohibit “private gatherings” in halls of residence that exceed the limits for gatherings[6] in private households.

Students were asked to consider the possibility of them spreading the disease to older age groups, as figures show an increase in cases among 20-29 year-olds. The Prime Minister warned that students who became ill would be asked not to travel home.

In a series of proposals for easing out of lockdown safely unveiled in June 2020 by Universities UK (UUK), a vice-Chancellor membership organisation, showed that young people’s social spheres would be far smaller than in a typical year.

Students live and study in bubbles composed of people from the same course in order to reduce transmission of coronavirus on campus. [8]These groups share a timetable to restrict exposure to other bubbles, and freshers’ week mixers were virtual.

The University and College Union (UCU) has demanded that all non-essential teaching must move online.

Figures put together by the union suggest that there have been more than 35,000 cases on campuses since term started.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: “The health and safety of the country is being put at risk because of this government’s insistence that universities must continue with in-person teaching.”

The Government said universities should consider moving to increased levels of online learning where possible.

Even walking around campus has been different, with some universities imposing one-way pedestrian systems. 

Mr Johnson said: “My message to students is simple. Please, for the sake of your education, for your parents’ and your grandparents’ health, wash your hands, cover your face, make space, and don’t socially gather in groups of more than six now and when term starts.”

Are student halls different?

Halls of residence are far less crowded as students are mostly required to stay at home. Many universities were predicting a drop in international students thanks to Brexit. The coronavirus pandemic has kept even more away, so most pupils are UK residents already. 

Most universities are cleaning communal areas – kitchens, bathrooms, lounges – more regularly.

Some universities considered segregating halls based on course subjects, to reduce interaction with people from other bubbles.

How much tuition is online?

Most universities held most lectures online. Providers have been told not ask students to return[9] if their course can reasonably be continued online.

In May, the University of Cambridge became the first British institution to announce that it would hold all lectures online for the entire 2020-21 academic year. Tutorials and smaller classes could take place in person, the university said, provided they could conform to social distancing requirements. The University of Manchester made its lectures online at least for the autumn semester.

By contrast, the University of Bolton said it intended to install “airport-style walk-through temperature scanners at every building entry” and make face masks compulsory in order to ensure that the campus was fully opened in September.

Most universities moved learning online by 9 December. 

Will it change with each term?

It is hard to say how long these restrictions will last; that depends entirely on how the pandemic progresses.

Universities UK addresses this uncertainty in its set of guidelines, Principles and Considerations: Emerging from Lockdown[10]. “Restrictions relating to Covid-19 may continue for some time or be lifted and then be imposed again in response to further national or localised outbreaks,” the document stated. “The principles within this document will still apply, subject to the lifting of subsequent Covid-19 restrictions.”

Will fees be affected?

In April 2020, Michelle Donelan, the higher education minister, announced that current students would not be entitled to refunds or compensation[11] for their learning moving online if it was still of high quality.  

“We have already seen over the last few months courses being delivered online and virtually at an amazing quality and degree and I know the efforts that staff across the sector have made to be able to facilitate that,” she said.

Not everyone is happy with that. A QS survey[12] revealed 75 per cent of students think tuition fees ought to be discounted if they have to study online this year. 

Can I get a fee refund?

Maybe.

The Department for Education has said that if universities are “unable to facilitate adequate online tuition then it would be unacceptable for students to be charged for any additional terms”.

In order to pursue a refund, you would have to complain directly to your university. If that is unsuccessful, you may appeal, using a “completions procedure form” from your university with the Office of the Independent Adjudicator[13] (OIA) in England or Wales, or Scottish Public Services Ombudsman[14] or Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman[15], if your university is in one of those countries.

Thousands of students have demanded refunds of tuition fees, fearing coronavirus will ruin their university experiences.

More universities are telling students that all teaching will be online-only.  

Many students are disappointed by this, arguing they are getting bad value for money, while more than 3,000 have been trapped in their halls under recent university lockdowns.

Hundreds of thousands of people signed an online petition to refund tuition fees for 2020-21 due to Covid-19. 

Read more: Can I get a refund on my university fees because of Covid-19 disruptions?[16]

Are the numbers of students down? How many people are deferring their places?

Universities have seen a downturn in new students this year. A survey from the University and College Union found that 71 per cent of applicants preferred to delay starting university if it meant they would get more face-to-face teaching. 

Independent research from the University of Leicester found 41 per cent of 2,000 surveyed UK students considered deferring their places until 2021 because of uncertainty over online courses and safety.

Yet the ability to defer was not guaranteed. The University of Oxford, for example, said it did not encourage it: “Subject to any public health conditions still being in force, we are expecting to welcome a full cohort of new undergraduates in October 2020, so we will not routinely support requests for deferral. Any offer holders with particular, verifiable reasons to wish to defer their place should contact the college which made their offer or open-offer to discuss this.”

 Each university and each college at Oxford or Cambridge have considered deferrals on a case-by-case basis, so it’s best to contact your university directly.

If students defer their entries, this could spell trouble for universities – especially because their intake of international students was lower this year. Universities expect to lose £2.5bn in funding[17] next year due to the loss of international students (who pay higher fees), who are unable to travel to the UK. 

What is happening around the world?

In America, states are operating independently: at The University of Maryland, for example, all tuition has moved online. The Ivy League schools’ campuses are still open but their spring sports season has been cancelled.  The University of Virginia[18] is keeping in-person classes, but banning students from leaving their rooms for most other purposes, except attending classes, obtaining food, individual exercise and being tested for COVID-19.

And in Europe, even as schools have re-opened with social distancing measures across the continent, universities have found themselves at the back of the queue in terms of priorities. In part, this is because online teaching at a tertiary level has found relative success. At the University of Paris[19], students are being offered testing as part of a programme to support the gradual resumption of on-site teaching. In Berlin, students are not allowed to come back to campus unless their course demands it[20] as part of the SARS-CoV-2 Infection Protection Measures Ordinance, published on February 11, by the Berlin Senate.

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