How can universities prepare to be COVID-secure for September?

As university summer terms draw to a close amid the ongoing impact of the coronavirus pandemic, all eyes turn to what life on campus will look like at the start of the new academic year and how universities can prepare to be COVID-secure.

Universities cannot afford for too many students to defer amid ongoing concerns around the coronavirus pandemic (a recent survey suggested 20% may do so) and will want to welcome a new cohort in September. But what does a COVID-secure campus look like? What measures can institutions put in place to make sure students get the “usual” university experience? How can universities reassure students that they will get value for money for their fees?
Universities UK recently published “Principles and Considerations: Emerging from Lockdown”, setting out a framework of considerations for opening campuses back up in September. It identifies nine principles for emerging from coronavirus lockdown, at the forefront of which is the health, safety and wellbeing of students, staff, visitors and the wider community. Only if students feel safe will they choose to return to campus.

Practical steps

Each university will, of course, have to carry out a thorough risk assessment. Making the campus COVID-secure should include the following considerations:

  1. Online learning – several universities, including the University of Cambridge and the University of Manchester, have announced that they will be running online lectures only from September. Online lectures are not new, but are often there to supplement in-person teaching. Now all institutions appear to be considering blended learning, with some face-to-face teaching of smaller groups to complement the online offering. 97% of the 92 institutions surveyed by Universities UK recently said they would provide on-campus learning from September. Protective screens for teachers have also been mooted.
  2. Social distancing – current guidance requires people to stay 2m apart. This will be a challenge for universities already making maximum use of their space. Consider where small group teaching will take place? Are lecturers who usually host tutorials in their own offices happy to continue with this or will neutral space have to be found? Moving large scale lectures online means lecture theatre space can be repurposed for smaller group teaching.
  3. Student bubbles – there has been much talk of keeping students in “bubbles”, as primary school children currently are, so that you live and study with the same group of people, moving around campus together.
  4. Student accommodation – students will want to know their accommodation is COVID-secure, so adaptations may need to be made to catering facilities/shared areas. As well as health concerns, consider students’ financial concerns. After this year’s experiences, they may be reluctant to sign up to accommodation contracts obliging them to pay rent in the event of another lockdown, where they are required to vacate their room and return home. Where universities rely on private providers for accommodation, they must work together closely to ensure their students’ needs are met and any financial risks are shared.
  5. Reducing congestion on campus – this can be done by instigating one way systems; exclusive entrances/exits; staggering arrival and departure times for teaching; and reducing movement of students around campus.
  6. Getting to and from campus – consider how many students/staff may have to travel on public transport. Can you increase the frequency of university-run bus services? Can space on campus be allocated for additional car parking? The University of Bolton is offering bikes for loan to encourage independent travel.
  7. Commercial space – many campuses have a commercial “hub”, with shop, bank, food offerings and other student services grouped together. Consider here the Government’s guidance for shopping centres re-opening. If these hubs have common entrances, numbers of entrants may need to be strictly controlled, but carefully monitored so having 10 students in the shop doesn’t mean no one can get to the bank. Queuing and appointment systems or staggered hours may have to be instigated to manage visitors. Conversations may be needed with tenants about how lease rights and reservations may need to be varied to implement COVID-secure provisions.
  8. Collaborative space – a key trend of recent campus redevelopments, space for students to mingle and meet can quite easily conflict with COVID-secure requirements. Cafes and break out spaces may need to be temporarily reconfigured – consider stand-up tables for students to take a quick break and then move on or perhaps transparent screens installed on tables so people can still sit and chat, but safely.
  9. Lab space – follow the Government’s detailed guidance on making lab space COVID-secure. This may mean smaller teaching groups and adaptations in ways of working for research groups.
  10. Edtech will have a huge role to play, not only in increased online learning provision but also in monitoring and obtaining data of usage and movement around campus. The prevalence of the smart campus will be accelerated as it becomes fundamental for estates teams to understand where people are and how their estate is being used. We also shouldn’t forget the availability of environmental data for individuals – anyone keen to monitor their health and wellbeing can do so easily on their smartphone, looking at air quality etc. Institutions and students should collaborate here to fulfil the underlying fundamental principle of ensuring the health and wellbeing of everyone on campus.
  11. Other safety measures – consider implementing temperature scanners; wearing of face masks etc. and other physical restrictions to enhance social distancing and security.

Is this the “real” university experience?

Put shortly, university is going to feel very different in September. But that doesn’t mean it won’t be attractive to students. Young people may have few other options in September – with limited job or travel opportunities – and university cohorts will no doubt bond over their shared experiences of studying through the coronavirus pandemic. In many ways, the studying will be the easy part. Blended learning, combining online and face-to-face, will provide the teaching excellence students expect.

However, going to university is about far more than just studying for a degree and coronavirus will have a much bigger impact on the social aspects of university life. Music, drama and sports societies may not be able to operate as usual in the short term. Club nights and large social events are unlikely to be the mainstay of Freshers’ Week, but universities will come up with innovative ways to ensure students join societies and meet others. After all, we’re all now used to socialising by Zoom and so video meet-ups whilst social distancing requirements remain won’t seem odd. There will still be the opportunity to meet new people, albeit living and studying in bubbles will limit the range of people you mix with initially. At least it might prevent the age-old problem of befriending someone in Freshers’ Week only to spend the next three years trying to shake them off!

Reconsidering the estate

Every university will have to make adaptations to its estate in order to welcome students in September. Work should start as a priority and be comprehensive. Collaboration is key – universities must liaise with their tenants to agree measures to implement. Any universities that rent space may need to consult their landlords before making any alterations. Lockdown has caused people to reflect on their health and wellbeing and students will expect their environment to offer safety and security for the long-term.

From the universities’ perspective, it gives institutions the opportunity to reconsider their estate and facilities, looking at what space works best and what may need redevelopment to meet future demands. Some design changes implemented as a result of the coronavirus pandemic will become pervasive. In all likelihood blended teaching will continue – what impact will that have on large teaching space going forward? The move towards the smart campus will accelerate.

Universities have demonstrated their importance through this crisis already, with teams at the forefront of testing and research into coronavirus vaccines and cures. The challenge of reopening in September gives institutions another opportunity to demonstrate their flair for innovation, in reimagining the student experience for the COVID-secure era.


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