More English universities preparing for full term teaching online

Despite guidance from government, most leaders do not expect to be able to teach majority of students face-to-face during spring term

January 11, 2021
Online learning
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More English university leaders are expecting to continue teaching online throughout the spring term despite government hopes that students might return in February.

Vice-chancellors told Times Higher Education they had asked staff to plan their teaching as if they would not return to in-person until after the Easter break for those subjects not prioritised for return in January.

Under guidance for England’s latest coronavirus lockdown, the return of more students to campuses was pushed back to “at least mid-February”, after students on medicine and health-related courses, and social work and education degrees were permitted to return from 4 January.

Some universities, such as the University of York and Durham University, have already announced their decision to move fully online for the rest of the term, while the London School of Economics has said “compulsory teaching” will be online for the rest of the academic year. The University of East Anglia said it had decided to keep teaching online until at least 1 March. “Our hope is that this will enable students and staff to plan more effectively,” a spokesperson said.

Other vice-chancellors told THE that they were expecting to stay online past February, but had not committed to it fully to enable flexibility. “In the unlikely event that things return to some form of normality, we will seek to return to some face-to-face teaching,” said Adam Tickell, vice-chancellor of the University of Sussex.

Sir Ed Byrne, president of King’s College London, said that “we are doing everything the government has said, bringing those practical courses and formally evaluating again in February, but we have a strong expectation that the lockdown measures will continue and the likelihood is that we will be teaching in the way we are to the end of term”.

“We’re organised to continue until the end of term…We’ve planned it that way, but if it does ease up, we will flip back to a more blended model. We’ve got good at that now, and if it is done safely, it is important for students,” he said.

Sir Ed said he felt that the government had done a fairly good job given the changing nature of the pandemic. “Advice has changed, but then so has circumstance; and they’ve shown a willingness to react to that,” he said.

Even so, King’s was looking “at [the situation] carefully and doing the analysis ourselves”, by tapping into its own expertise at the university, he said. “We have very good information about infection rates, for example,” and the institution’s close links with London hospitals had given it a “very clear view” of the severity of the crisis.

Sir Chris Husbands, vice-chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University, said his institution’s planning “would allow us to return to face-to-face post mid-February”, but would also allow the institution to continue teaching online after the current scheduled end of England’s lockdown.

“In all sorts of ways, I have huge sympathy with government – this is a complex area, moving fast and by definition the Department for Education doesn’t have all the information at its fingertips. That said, I think that the guidance too often tries to manage from the centre, specifying processes rather than outcomes. There is a real sense that the centre is moving more slowly than institutions,” Sir Chris said.

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