What happens in a second lockdown?
Even before it was announced that the Government would impose a month-long national lockdown from November 5 to help manage the rise of coronavirus cases, there were already many restrictions in the works for students.
The Government had previously said students should not return home if there was a Covid outbreak at their university to prevent it from spreading across the country.
Boris 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.”
One thing that is clear is that universities will remain open from November 5, though Mr Johnson faces a fresh battle with the unions as a result.
The University and College Union (UCU) has demanded that all non-essential teaching must move online.
Its leaders said it would be “incomprehensible” if teaching continued in person while a lockdown was on.
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.
Government guidelines explain the further restrictions in place: “If you live at university, you must not move back and forward between your permanent home and student home during term time. You should only return home at the end of term for Christmas. We will publish further guidance on the end of term.”
How will student halls be different?
Halls of residence have been less crowded. 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 have plans to clean communal areas – kitchens, bathrooms, lounges – more regularly.
Some universities considered segregating halls based on course subjects, to reduce interaction with people from other bubbles.
What about freshers flu?
As Warwick University pointed out to its students, because the symptoms of freshers flu are similar to coronavirus, those who experienced mild symptoms would need to self-isolate until they are tested and the results return as negative.
This means any students who have symptoms such as a persistent new cough, a loss of taste or smell and a high temperature would need to self-isolate, along with those they have been in contact with.
How much tuition will be online?
Most universities held most lectures online. Many said that smaller groups of students would be able to meet in socially distanced tutorials.
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.
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. “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, Michelle Donelan, the higher education minister, announced that current students would not be entitled to refunds or compensation 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 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?
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 (OIA) in England or Wales, or Scottish Public Services Ombudsman or Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman, 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.
Will numbers of students be 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 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?
The chancellor of California State University, a 23-campus system of higher education in the US state, said it would be cancelling classes for the autumn semester, with all instruction taking place online. Other American universities said that they intended to re-open their campuses this autumn, but they were also making back-up online plans.
Other American universities are shortening their autumn semesters, cancelling the mid-term break and sending students home for winter break at Thanksgiving, in late November, in order to avoid the beginning of the flu season. Some scientists have predicted that there will be a second spike of coronavirus cases when flu season hits.
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.
Will students be tested for coronavirus?
Two prominent institutions announced testing plans aimed at avoiding major disruptions.
Cambridge offered all students living in college accommodation a weekly coronavirus test after term began on October 8.
Exeter University announced it was teaming up with commercial test provider Halo to ensure same-day testing at its campuses in Exeter and Cornwall.
Cambridge said it would go beyond Government guidance and offer testing to students even if they showed no symptoms.
Sample swabs, from the nose and throat, will be pooled by college household, allowing the university to reduce the number of tests required to some 2,000 per week. If a pooled household test is positive, students in the household will be offered individual tests.
The University of Exeter said it would work with Halo, the UK’s first commercial provider of saliva-based Covid tests, to offer a simple and fast means of both finding cases and reassuring students who fall ill but are not infected.
“The university has put in place a full suite of measures to protect the whole community including providing face coverings, digital thermometers, Covid-secure buildings and protocols for staff and student behaviour,” the university said.
The university has also set up a Rapid Response Hub for all students and staff to report symptoms and request tests, with extra investment made in campus health centres so that students will be able to get medical help if they need it.