While the ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has undoubtedly been a huge blow to the higher education sector, it has provided an opportunity for universities to rally round and plan for the future

Here are some of the changes that have already been put in place by institutions and the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), as well as what you can expect during the 2020/21 academic year.

However, it's still important to check with your own university to discover what its individual plans are going forwards.

University admissions and Clearing

If you're not already holding an offer from a university for 2020/21 entry and the course you've selected still has places, provided you meet the conditions you can still use the UCAS Clearing system to gain a university place until Tuesday 20 October.

This year, UCAS has introduced Clearing Plus, which allows prospective students to be matched to courses you may be interested in. It compares information provided in your application with what universities are looking for. The search tool is still available.

For further details on the Clearing process, see University Clearing 2020.

Student safety in halls and on campus

In a move to reduce the risk of coronavirus in halls and on campuses, many universities have encouraged students to live and study with those on the same course or in their year.

For example, the University of Bristol has introduced 'living circles' which refers to the household students will be living with during at least the first year of university. This enables students to socialise, study and spend time with those within their circle when visiting the campus and the wider city.

This similar to the 'social bubble' concept, which allows students to mix in small groups with course mates, those in the same year group and those they share flats with. This is to help restrict the number of people you'd interact with, especially when accessing campus facilities.

Staffordshire University is one of a number of universities to adopt this approach, with other new measures for this term including hygiene precautions, such sanitising stations and wearing face coverings, as well as one-way systems to get around campus.

In Greater Manchester, five major institutions - The University of Manchester, Manchester Metropolitan University, the University of Salford, the University of Bolton and the Royal Northern College of Music - along with their students' unions have agreed on a list of measures to help fight the virus.

These include:

  • free masks
  • hosting all lectures online during the first semester
  • free accommodation to overseas students needing to quarantine
  • an app to help the National Health Service's (NHS) track and trace system
  • reduced opening hours of facilities such as libraries.

Blended learning and online classes

While some universities including Cambridge University and Regent's University London have moved to an online-only teaching experience, for the full academic year and autumn term respectively, the majority of institutions have moved to a 'blended' model. This involves a combination of online lectures with smaller groups of face-to-face tutorials.

The University of Manchester plans to deliver all lectures online in 2020/21. Despite this, students will still be able to return to campus as the university is eager to ensure other face-to-face activities, including small group teaching and tutorials, are able to continue.

Lectures will also be delivered online by the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), but they are also running small classes, seminars, tutorial groups and teaching sessions on campus where possible.

For students wondering about how they'll be able to take practical subjects such as photography, design and fine art, Leeds Arts University and Norwich University of the Arts (NUA) have announced a mix of online lectures, seminars and tutorials with access to the studios and workshops for small groups. Leeds will still be facilitating for one-to-one contact with staff.

Virtual open days and careers fairs

Following the outbreak of coronavirus back in March, university open day events were cancelled for 2020. However, you can still attend virtual open days at many universities involved in Clearing and explore where you'd like to continue your education.

Also, careers fairs, which are usually planned in for the autumn and spring months, have largely been moved online too. For instance, the University of Southampton has announced its 'Connect with your Future' virtual careers fair exchange for 22 and 23 October 2020.

For details of the latest virtual student and graduate events, see Prospects open days and events.

Student health and wellbeing

Universities UK has revealed it has updated its strategic framework Stepchange as it calls on universities to prioritise students' mental health across every aspect of its policies, cultures, practices and courses.

The recommendations include:

  • working closely with students and staff in developing mental health strategies and services
  • ensuring accessible and appropriately resourced support for mental health and wellbeing for all students and all staff
  • a commitment to assessments and coursework that stretches and tests learning, but without it imposing unnecessary stress.

International students

In June, the universities minister Michelle Donelan set out measures such as flexible visa regulations to support international students as they considered studying in the UK under the current circumstances. See the GOV.UK press release.

Brunel University is an example of an institution that has introduced an optional January 2021 start date for international students affected by COVID-19 travel restrictions and who aren't able to get into the UK at this time. This relates to compressed programmes in business and management, accountancy, economics and finance, and computer science where you'll be able to study through to September and begin your second year as normal.

The UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCISA) has also provided a comprehensive coronavirus guide for international students.

University exams

The end of year exams for this academic year may be held online. However, students lacking access to a computer, laptop or broadband connection would be given the chance to request that their assessment take place in person.

Find out more

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