Packed lecture halls won’t return soon, but students can still go to university | Julia Buckingham


he UK’s universities haven’t gone anywhere – we are still teaching, supporting students remaining on campus, and running essential research projects, including to help us beat Covid-19. Universities are also starting to be ready to share more on their thinking about what next term will look like – and for most it will be a blended teaching approach: in-person when it can be done safely for both students and staff, with interactive online alternatives also available.

Providing digital learning tools isn’t new for universities. Today’s students have an anytime, anywhere attitude to learning, choosing to engage with content, their tutors and their peers in a variety of different ways. We already know that students benefit from the ability to replay lectures – this is something many universities have been providing for a long time.

But since the outbreak of the pandemic, there has been an extraordinary effort to deliver advanced online teaching and assessments of the highest possible quality. In the last few months we have seen positive feedback from students across the country. This includes students on virtual field trips, such as those from Bangor University and Imperial College, innovative online Shakespeare productions from determined students at the University of Northampton and the medical students diagnosing virtual patients at virtual clinicsat St. George’s, University of London.

We fully understand, however, that the university experience is not just about learning through lectures and other classes. We are doing all we can to ensure that students feel part of a community of learners in which they can share ideas, make connections, build networks and make lifelong friends. We know that this has not been easy in recent months, but our students have already been using their social media skills to keep in touch with classmates and find study partners.

We know that students are keen to continue their studies in person as soon as it safe to do so and, as president of Universities UK, I want to reassure them that universities are doing everything in their power to realise this. This of course also applies to our international students, who will be welcome as always across the UK.

It’s true that large lectures held in halls full of hundreds of students are unlikely to go ahead any time soon – I know they won’t at Brunel University London – but this doesn’t mean that teaching and learning will not be happening. We are still waiting to understand the next phase of the government’s unlocking strategy and to learn lessons from other countries and industries, but this isn’t stopping us from developing plans for 2020/21. At the heart of these is the safety and wellbeing of our students and staff.

We know that several universities are looking at how students can initially live and study with the same group to minimise mixing in the autumn term. This is just one of many social distancing approaches that are being explored in the UK and internationally to ensure that universities can protect staff and students while providing in-person teaching where possible.

Crucially, UK universities are working together. Our members have committed to a set of principles which will help with planning and provide reassurance for students and staff. We will remain flexible, particularly as no one is sure how the virus might progress. Students will be at the heart of the approach, and every university will set out how teaching and services will be provided in the coming months, in line with government advice.

Our universities will be open for business this autumn and students should have full confidence that they will be able to begin and continue to study for high-quality degrees. We will be supporting the national recovery effort and ensuring that our students are prepared for careers in an ever-changing jobs market and a rapidly evolving world. Our priority will always be the safety and welfare of our students and staff, and this includes being totally committed to providing students the world class university experience that they need to succeed and for which our universities are renowned globally.

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