After closures due to the coronavirus lockdown, and the subsequent need for teaching to go online, UK universities have been setting out how they might bring students back for the autumn term. The idea of a “protective bubble” has been proposed, in which students will be contained to only one small group to live and study with. University leaders have said that this is to minimise groups of people mixing, and thus lessen chances of increased infections. Efforts to aid the success of the ‘bubble’ include socially-distanced events like a virtual fresher’s week.
To prevent the risk of infection, the Universities UK briefing suggested students could be kept in small groups, sharing accommodation with people taking the same course, using the “protective bubble” approach used in primary schools in England. Liz Barnes, vice-chancellor of Staffordshire University, said she had been discussing the idea with other universities – with her university expecting to have eight people per bubble.
“The more that we can keep them into a small group of regular interaction the better in current circumstances,” said Prof Barnes.
Students could see others outside, but there would be controls on who could go inside accommodation. This would also depend on university accommodation having a big reduction in capacity, so that social distancing could be possible and facilities such as kitchens and bathrooms could be safely shared. It is also expected that there will be fewer students on campus if lectures were delivered online. A survey suggested 71% of students would prefer to start the term later if it meant that they could access more in-person teaching.
The first week of university life – known as freshers’ week – is where students get a chance to socialise together through a variety of fun events. It is a vital aspect to the university experience, allowing students to become accustomed to their surroundings and start their journey off well. But University of Nottingham vice-chancellor, Shearer West, said it might not be “all singing, all dancing” this year.
“We’re certainly planning to have people join things and get involved in societies, but we may just have to run freshers’ fair in a different kind of way,” said Prof West.
These could be “virtual events,” said Universities UK president Julia Buckingham. But in a way that “we can guarantee students have social interaction with one another”. This combined with a ‘blended’ teaching approach of online and in-person means the new academic year is shaping up to be very different for students.
“Students need clarity as to what they can expect from the next academic year in order for them to make informed choices,” says the National Union of Students.
The deadline for making a firm choice of university is 18 June – and the higher education watchdog, the Office for Students, says applicants have to be told with “absolute clarity” how they will be taught. And if a university subsequently changes what it offers then students should be released from their choices. Time will only tell if such regulations as a ‘protective bubble’ will work for universities and their students.