Currently the Higher Education sector is experiencing an unprecedented
level of disruption and as a result there is a significant amount of
uncertainty about what will be happening in the 2020/21 academic year.
Universities have been hit particularly hard financially by campus closures
and face the potential of further dramatic losses due to the potential
reduction in international student numbers, which could amount to hundreds
of millions of pounds according to the Guardian .
Students have been equally adversely affected, experiencing a lower
quality academic experience whilst bearing the same level of cost.
The uncertainty about the continued impact of Covid 19 places both students
and Universities in a difficult position. Universities are under pressure
Office For Students
to provide students with certainty about their offering from September, so
that potential students can make an informed decision about which
University to attend. This is of course extremely difficult for
Universities to do at the moment.
As a result students will need to make a decision about attending
University in the knowledge that they may not enjoy the full ‘experience’
and this is causing some concern that it may result in a further reduction
in student numbers and have a wider economic impact.
Worst gap year ever?
It is understandable that these concerns exist, however it is important to
bear in mind that students will be making this decision in context. The
crisis has had an impact across the economy and many of the ‘traditional’
gap year activities will also be impacted, in particular international
travel and flexible/part time work, as the economy contracts. It is also
worth remembering that the majority of students are midway through their
studies and are likely to have less flexibility about deferring or taking
The University Experience
UK Universities are generally regarded as among the best in the world.
Furthermore, while costs have increased over the years, they are typically
seen to offer good value and continue to attract both domestic and
international students. It is fair to say though that a large part of this
appeal is based on the wider experience of University, a crucial element of
which is the on-campus experience. This is what provides the premium and it
is not easily replicated in an online environment. As a result it is likely
that most Universities will want to offer students as much of the
traditional experience as possible in the current environment - this is
effectively central to the 'offer'.
It is therefore important to look beyond the
'University of Cambridge goes online'
stories and understand that what the University is actually saying is that they
plan to re-open campus in September and they fully expect students to
attend. Yes, the large groups of students in lectures will probably not be
possible, however the aim will be to provide face to face teaching in
smaller groups. To protect the overall 'experience' it is likely that many
Universities will follow suit and provide a blended experience in 2021,
supplementing in person teaching with digital delivery for large groups.
Nine principles to emerge from lock down
It is particularly significant that on the 3rd of June, Universities UK
(the voice of Universities) launched 9 principles for emerging from
lockdown. This plan has been developed to support the sector in providing
the type of high quality experience students expect in the context of the
current crisis. It begins to provide a national overview of how
Universities can provide a blended learning experience in a safe and secure
way this autumn. While on the one hand this can been seen as a challenge,
it should also be seen as a desire on behalf of the Higher Education sector
to open up again in September and crucially attract students back on
You can download the document here
and understand in detail the recommended approach. The most important
principle is of course ensuring the health and safety of students, staff
and visitors to Universities. However principle two is of particular
interest as it begins to address how Universities might make practical
changes to their layout and infrastructure to comply with guidance on
social distancing. This includes such things as;
Managing foot flow on-campus
How class sizes and timetables might be adapted to minimise the number
of students on campus at any one time
How to facilitate social and sporting activity in line with social
How to manage student accommodation and maintain social distancing
Currently a number of Universities are investing in changes to the
infrastructure and teaching methods so that they can accommodate students
back on-campus this year. There is also an effort to replicate some of the
key aspects of student life online, with the potential for a move towards
virtual freshers’ fairs a possibility. However, this is not an attempt to
provide a wholly online learning experience, but one which enables an
on-campus presence where safe and a digital environment where required.
While this can seem a daunting prospect for those in the Student
Accommodation sector, it is clear that the intention of most Universities
is to re-open to the greatest possible extent. It is also the case that
some Universities are considering limiting the number of students in their
own accommodation which may also create opportunities for other operators.
During this period of change we will continue to review the national
picture and provide regular updates and research to keep you updated.