University and coronavirus: What social distancing rules and bubbles mean for freshers’ week

From the Rule of Six to online classes, the university experience is likely to be very different for this year's batch of students

coronavirus university covid rules social distancing bubbles how work will close again
When students arrive on campus for the 2020-21 academic year, university life will be dramatically different Credit: EyeEm

As university students arrive on campus for the 2020-2021 academic year, their lives look very different to what they may have been expecting. 

From smaller class sizes, online lectures, halls segregated by course topic, and only virtual freshers’ events, the impact of the pandemic on student life will be far-reaching and may last well into 2021.

Schools began to return in a phased manner from early June (read the full details here), but universities operate differently. As they are independent, autonomous institutions, they are developing their own pandemic roadmaps, while adhering to guidelines set by each country's universities regulator. 

Below we answer the most common questions about universities’ plans to return to academic life after the coronavirus pandemic.

What will a typical week look like for students?

Freshers events have all been cancelled; crowds are out and bubbles are in.  New guidance from the Government outlaws any social gathering larger than six people in private homes (including gardens and other outdoor spaces) - the so-called "rule of six" - but excludes halls of residence which should be Covid secure.

However, this does not mean parties. Universities are under orders to prohibit "private gatherings" in halls of residence that exceed the limits for gatherings in private households and would therefore breach Covid-secure guidelines.

Businesses and venues following Covid-secure guidelines can host larger groups, provided they comply with the law. This is also the case for events in public outdoor spaces that are organised by businesses, charitable or political organisations, and public bodies, provided they take reasonable steps to mitigate the risk of transmission, in line with Covid-secure guidance and including completion of a risk assessment.

Larger gatherings are also permitted, if they are reasonably necessary for work purposes or, at an educational facility, reasonably necessary for the purposes of education. Providers should also follow wider guidance on what you are able to do during the Coronavirus outbreak.

The Prime Minister has also announced a 10pm curfew on pubs and restaurants in an attempt to keep the number of cases under control. 

On a wider scale, students will be asked to consider the possibility of them spreading the disease to older age groups. The latest figures show that the age group 20-29 is seeing the highest increases in numbers of those affected.  So the Prime Minister has warned that students who fall ill will be asked not to travel home to prevent the spread of disease.

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

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

Even walking around campus may be different, as some universities are considering imposing one-way pedestrian systems. 

These measures are currently being considered by the University of Staffordshire, said Professor Liz Barnes, vice-chancellor at that institution. Prof Barnes said a number of other universities were also considering this bubble approach.

What happens if there is a second lockdown?

Even before it was announced that the government may consider an October 'circuit break' - a short national lockdown to help manage the rise of coronavirus cases - there were already many restrictions in the works for students. 

The government has 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 at a Downing Street press conference 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.”

However, it's unclear as to what would happen to students if there was another lockdown - whether they would be required to stay in their halls and bubbles, or asked to return home. 

What about social life and freshers’ week?

In contrast to the pub crawls, nightclubs and campus parties that typify the welcome for new arrivals on British university campuses, this year freshers’ week will be confined to virtual events that young people will attend without leaving their bedroom in halls.

If universities do follow the UK proposal to create bubbles, students will have far fewer opportunities to meet people on other courses.

Sports, music and drama activities - another traditional way of meeting people from outside of your course - will be altered to comply with social distancing rules, but they have not been cancelled entirely. Check with individual universities for policies on extra-curricular activities.

How will student halls be different?

Halls of residence will be less crowded. Many universities were predicting a drop in international students thanks to Brexit. The coronavirus pandemic will have influenced even more to stay away, so expect most pupils to be UK residents already. 

Most universities have plans to clean communal areas - kitchens, bathrooms, lounges - more regularly.

Some universities are considering 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 are experiencing 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 are expected to hold most lectures online. Many have said that smaller groups of students will 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 can conform to social distancing requirements. The University of Manchester has said its lectures will be online at least for the autumn semester.

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

Of course, how much this will affect your child is down to the course they’re on. Subjects with laboratory time or studio time may not be able to function digitally, and it is important to check with your child’s department to establish what the plans are for his or her course. 

It seems likely that these plans will evolve in coming weeks, so do not expect these plans to be exactly what your child finds when he or she arrives on campus in the autumn.

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. It is possible that the rules will be relaxed by winter, or the second term of university.

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 states. “The principles within this document will still apply, subject to the lifting of subsequent Covid-19 restrictions.”

Will fees be affected?

It seems unlikely that first-year students will have a discount on their tuition fees, even if lectures largely move online. 

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 will be happy with that. A recent 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?

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 (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.

Will numbers of students be down? How many people are deferring their places?

It is likely that universities will see a downturn in new students this year. A recent survey from the University and College Union found that 71 per cent of applicants would prefer to delay starting university if it meant they would get more face-to-face teaching. 

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

Yet the ability to defer is not guaranteed. The University of Oxford, for example, has said it does 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 will be considering 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 will undoubtedly be 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 might be 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 have said that they intend to re-open their campuses this autumn, but they are 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 have announced testing plans aimed at avoiding major disruptions.

Cambridge will offer all students living in college accommodation a weekly coronavirus test after term begins on October 8.

Exeter University has announced it is 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.