University students will be grouped into 'bubbles' to live and study together, vice-Chancellors reveal

Camilla Turner
A series of proposals for easing out of lockdown safely have been unveiled by Universities UK

University students will be grouped into “bubbles” to live and study together in a bid to limit the transmission of coronavirus on campus, vice-Chancellors have revealed.

The arrangement will see students divided into groups of students from the same course as them and allocated the same hall of residence as the others in their group. 

They will also be given time tables to match the other students in their “bubble”, to limit the amount of exposure they have to fellow students. Students taking up places at university for the first time this autumn are likely to be greeted by a “virtual” freshers' week, largely online lectures and one-way systems across campus, university leaders said. 

A series of proposals for easing out of lockdown safely have been unveiled by Universities UK (UUK), the vice-Chancellor membership organisation.

Professor Liz Barnes, vice-chancellor of Staffordshire University, said that her own institution and several others are planning to adopt the “bubble” approach.

The concept is already in use in primary schools, which are reopening this week to certain year groups. According to guidance from the Department for Education, children should be split into groups of 15 at the most and have their lessons, play time and lunch break with the same group. 

Prof Barnes explained that each "bubble" of university students could come on to campus for a day at a time to "minimise movement” and to reduce the number of social interactions.

Prof Barnes, who is a member of the UUK’s board that coordinates the sector’s coronavirus response, said that the plan to create “bubbles” of students has “been discussed across a number of universities”.

She added: "The more that we can keep them into a small group of regular interaction, the better, in current circumstances.

"We are allocating students from the same courses into accommodation in groups, we are looking at block time tabling so students come in together and we minimise movement around classes."

Last month, Cambridge University became the first British institution to announce that there will be no “face to face” lectures for the whole of next academic year. Tutorials and smaller classes could take place in person, the university said, provided they can conform to social distancing requirements.

Vice-Chancellors have published a report on how universities can emerge from lockdown, with ideas under consideration including “virtual” work placements and a greater use of outdoor spaces for classes and extracurricular activities.

Prof Julia Buckingham, president of UUK and vice-chancellor of Brunel University, said that freshers’ weeks are likely to involve a suite of “virtual events” so students can interact with eachother while observing social distancing requirements.

"We're working very closely also with our students' union to arrange a whole load of virtual events to make sure that we can guarantee students have social interaction with one another, irrespective of what the social distancing arrangements are at the time,” she said.

Prof Shearer West, vice-chancellor at Nottingham University said the institution was looking at how to make freshers’ week available to students from their halls of residence "rather than the all-singing, all-dancing, all across the university" experience of previous years. 

She said: "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 depending on what the rules are about social distancing."

It comes as a survey from the University and College Union showed that most students would delay starting university in the autumn if they were able to secure more face-to-face classes.

The poll found that 71 per cent of applicants would prefer to delay the start of the academic year if they could get more face-to-face teaching.

Michelle Donelan, the universities minister, said this has been a “difficult and uncertain” time for students, adding: "I am pleased universities are making decisions and planning now for how courses might be adapted should restrictions be in place come autumn, providing much-needed clarity to students.”

 

What going to university this autumn will be like?

Students taking up places at university this autumn will have a very different experience to what they might have expected. Far from raucous parties, nightclubs and bar crawls that have come to define freshers’ weeks, they will instead consist largely of “virtual” events which they will be able to take part in without leaving their bedroom.

Universities say that they will operate a “blended” approach to teaching with most lectures taking place online combined with face-to-face tutorials and smaller classes.  

Extra-curricular activities such as sports, music and drama will be reconfigured so they can comply with social distancing requirements. Campuses will operate one-way systems, and time tables will be organised so that as few students as possible are on campus at any one time to avoid congestion. 

Halls of residence will be emptier – with many international students choosing to stay away, leaving empty rooms - and communal areas such as bathrooms and kitchens will be cleaned more regularly.  In some institutions, students will be organised into "bubbles" where they will live as well as learn with their peers on the same course as them. 

University leaders insist that this remains an “exciting” time to go to university, adding that a good degree will prepare students for what will be a “very challenging jobs market”. But whether students are convinced of this remains to be seen.