Universities UK publishes principles for ‘emerging from lockdown’

Guidance confirms most planning blended teaching approach from autumn, but specifics will vary based on location, size and type of university

June 3, 2020

Universities UK has confirmed that the sector is planning a blended learning approach for the coming academic year, while student “bubbles” and an optional January start date for overseas students are being considered by some institutions.

The organisation published a set of principles on 3 June outlining how universities should prepare for the next academic year, stating that institutions will provide “as much in-person learning, teaching, support services and extra-curricular activities as public health advice and government guidance will support”. This will include “new ways of providing practical sessions in socially distanced forms” and “innovative approaches to extra-curricular activities such as welcome week programmes”, it said.

These face-to-face approaches will be “supplemented with carefully planned alternatives for students where parts of the university experience may be difficult to deliver in-person – such as large lectures”, it added.  

The principles also include making appropriate changes to university layout and infrastructure, as well as regularly reviewing and adapting hygiene and cleaning protocols in all university spaces in accordance with public health advice.

Shearer West, vice-chancellor of the University of Nottingham and chair of a UUK-convened “coronavirus recovery sounding board”, said that the principles were not prescriptive or exhaustive but have been “designed to provide an overarching framework for universities to adapt to their own circumstances”.

“The principles are flexible and high level enough to respond to any change in public health advice,” she said, during a briefing to journalists.

Liz Barnes, vice-chancellor of Staffordshire University and a member of the recovery board, added that “the key here is that all students will have the opportunity for coming to university and having some physically taught sessions and some remote learning”.

The publication of the guidance, which was drawn up following input from universities across the sector, corroborates a recent Times Higher Education snapshot survey, which found that most UK universities were planning to deliver blended teaching models from the autumn.

There have been concerns about the lack of consistency among universities regarding their plans for the next academic year, but UUK president Julia Buckingham said it was important for there to be scope for different approaches based on the individual characteristics of institutions.

“The shape and size of each of our member universities varies greatly. There will be, of course, varied approaches according to these differences and others, such as geographical settings and the needs of their student populations,” she said.

“The purpose of these principles is to highlight important considerations that universities are making as they emerge from lockdown and to ensure that current and prospective students have an insight into all the work that is underway to give them a full university experience next year.”

When asked why students should not defer a year, Professor Buckingham, vice-chancellor of Brunel University London said it was “a very exciting time to be going to university”.

“Universities have a major role in driving economic and social recovery and that ethos will be very much part of the university experience that [students] will have,” she said.

She added that it was important for universities to “dispel the image that students spend a long time reading stuff on the web”, noting that “there is some extraordinarily exciting digital learning available now”.

Meanwhile, students “want more small group teaching and more interactive learning; they don’t particularly enjoy sitting in a lecture theatre with 400 other students and being talked at”, Professor Buckingham said.

On the question of whether students would demand a refund if teaching was wholly online, she said that the remote learning that universities were planning was “very different from an online programme which is designed for the masses and so therefore can be delivered at a very cheap price per capita”.

“The real issue is quality and whether students are having the opportunities to achieve the learning outcomes that we have promised that go with that degree. If we are doing that the universities minister and the Office for Students and we ourselves have said that we would expect students to pay the full university fee, the full £9,250,” she said.

Professor Buckingham said that students at Brunel will be able to “move between the online and campus elements depending on the restrictions that might take place, including the possibility of a further period of lockdown”. Brunel will also be introducing “an optional new January start for some of our larger postgraduate and undergraduate programmes for any international students who may not be able to travel in September”, she said.

The University of Exeter told THE last month that it was also considering a January start date for international and postgraduate students.

Professor Barnes said that Staffordshire would be implementing “a bubble approach”, meaning that students from the same courses would be grouped in accommodation.

“They might come in [to university] for a day in their cohort of a year group and we’ll try to minimise movement around campus,” she said, adding that other universities were planning a similar approach.

“We’re focusing on making sure that when the students are on campus they are making best use of our facilities,” she continued. “So it’s all about access to the specialist facilities that they can’t access in the same way when they are remote from the university.”

ellie.bothwell@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (3)

VC of Brunel University 'A very exciting time to be going to university' No lectures, possibly no societies, online fresher's week, limited social interaction.Sounds like prison.But feel free trying to flog this dead horse at £9250 p.a plus approx £6000 accommodation fees.
Quite a bit of evidence that students and academics are getting e-learning. This new model will endure.
Universities UK has a funny idea about "guidance"! They wait for universities to plan for next year, then report on what they are doing, then they voice concerns about a lack of consistency!

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