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Universities plan smaller classes and online lectures in return after coronavirus lockdown

By Peter Madeley | Shrewsbury | Education | Published:

Universities are planning to reopen student campuses from next month as they start to adapt to life after the coronavirus pandemic.

The University of Wolverhampton's Telford Campus

Senior leaders across the region are mapping out plans for the safe return of students, including smaller class sizes and more lectures available online.

Universities in the West Midlands say they are prioritising student and staff safety and will await Government guidance before making final decisions on reopening campuses and halls of residence.

University Centre Shrewsbury will be running “blended” courses from September, with small “socially distanced” groups taught on site for practical and laboratory work and seminars. Bosses have already started modifying its main site, Guildhall, to prepare for the return of students.

The University of Wolverhampton, which has a large Telford campus, says it plans to offer all students “a full digital suite of course material”, including recorded lectures and learning resources.

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On plans to reopen campuses, vice chancellor Geoff Layer said: “We will be looking at a gradual return to certain buildings being open and we will develop a plan which prioritises which parts can open first. It won’t be ‘we’re all back’.

“Social distancing has to be part of what we do, so I’d imagine we would be opening selected spaces over time.”

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Aberystwyth University, a popular destination for many in the region, said it is currently planning and will release details shortly.

A spokesman said: “We are currently undertaking careful planning for the next academic year, which involves the input of our staff, students and key partners.

“This planning is being carried out with the safety and wellbeing of all, including the wider community in Aberystwyth, uppermost in our minds.

"While the level of infection in our area is currently very low, we’re working collaboratively to ensure that we do all we can to maintain that position, while continuing to provide high-quality teaching to all our students.

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“We intend to publish further details in the near future.”

Staffordshire University is planning to run its courses through a combination of digital and on-site learning.

At Birmingham City University some 2019-20 students will return to campus for lessons next month, while 2020-21 courses will start in September with new safety measures in place such as lessons in smaller groups.

Determination to survive the crisis

British universities are among the highest rated in the world, leading the way when it comes to innovation and research.

But like every other aspect of our lives, the higher education sector is facing a series of challenges brought on by the devastating impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

For many universities in the UK there are fears of a looming financial crisis, with income expected to be slashed over the coming year due to a reduction in international and postgraduate students.

It stands to reason that prolonged lockdown measures would damage a sector which is largely dependant on thousands of fee paying students being able to sit together in classrooms across the country.

Cambridge University has already said it is looking to transfer its teaching online

Senior leaders will need to quickly work out how to balance the books once the pandemic has subsided, and central to that aim will be ensuring student numbers do not take the huge hit that doom-mongers are predicting.

Offering students – both existing and prospective ones – and staff a level of stability in a time of great uncertainty is no easy task. But it is one that universities currently find themselves immersed in as they await Government guidance on when they can safely return to some form of normality.

The University of Cambridge has already announced it will hold no face-to-face lectures in the next academic year due to coronavirus, with all sessions moved online.

In the West Midlands universities are taking a cautious approach, with safety the top priority. And while they have all moved courses online for this academic year, some are preparing to move towards a return to classroom lectures.

At Birmingham City University, some 2019-20 students are scheduled to return to campus next month.

Vice-chancellor Professor Philip Plowden said students would be brought back “on a limited basis”, with changes made to the way in which buildings are used to maintain social distancing in line with current guidelines. This was crucial so that students who need access to campus facilities were able to complete their degrees, he added.

Birmingham City University vice-chancellor Professor Philip Plowden

“For next year’s students, we will be teaching our programmes on campus,” Prof Plowden said. “There will be some changes in order to keep everyone safe – so we will teach in smaller groups; we will need to manage how buildings are used; and we will need to make sure that anyone who is vulnerable is kept safe.

“But we are confident that what we are doing will mean that we focus the campus activities on the things that students particularly value – which are the sessions where staff can work intensively with small groups of students.

“Our priority for this year is to ensure that every student gets the qualifications for which they are working, or are able to make progress towards getting those qualifications. Our absolute priority is the safety of our staff and students and all of our decisions continue to be made with safety of our community in mind.”

University Centre Shrewsbury (UCS) also moved lessons online from the start of the lockdown, with a huge range of electronic learning resources made available for students to access remotely.

Professor Anna Sutton says in-person and online teaching should be blended

Professor Anna Sutton, UCS provost, said the 2020-21 academic year would be “blended”, with online lectures and socially-distanced small group sessions on site, particularly for practical and laboratory work and seminars.

“We are also planning to give incoming students online options to help them settle in by introducing them to people and interests before they officially join the university community,” she said.

“As always, our first priority is for the safety and wellbeing of our students, colleagues and visitors, for whom we have a duty of care.

“Much as my team and I are looking forward to welcoming them back to our facilities in Shrewsbury, we are awaiting further details over the next few weeks of what needs to be in place before that can happen, following Government guidance closely.

“Until such time, we are undertaking initial modifications to prepare our main learning site, Guildhall, and developing protocols which take into account social distancing measures.”

Graduation ceremonies like this in Wolverhampton will have to change due to social distancing

The University of Wolverhampton is planning to welcome students for its 2020-21 programme from September 21, with term officially starting the following week.

The university says it will offer all students “a full digital suite of course material” – including recorded lectures and learning resources – while there will be a “gradual reopening” of sites, with laboratories likely to be opened first.

Professor Julia Clarke, deputy vice-chancellor (student experience), said: “Our priority remains the safety of students and our staff and when we do return to campus we will ensure that significant social distancing measures limiting the numbers of people who can be on site or in a room at any one time are in place, and whilst this may have some implications for how we deliver learning, teaching and student support, we are confident that we can offer students an innovative mixture of on-site and online delivery if needed.

“We are working hard on mapping out what this may look like programme by programme, planning for a range of different scenarios and taking into account government requirements and advice.”

Staffordshire University says it is preparing for “every eventuality”, with online lessons running alongside on-site learning from September – providing Government guidance allows it.

A spokesman said: “Regardless of the global landscape, we will continue to do everything in our power to ensure the health, safety and wellbeing of our students, staff and local communities while maintaining the high standards of education we deliver.

“Our Connected University has all the right tools and services in place to support our students’ learning and development, whatever their circumstances.”

Peter Madeley

By Peter Madeley
@P_Madeley_Star

Political Editor for the Express & Star. Responsible for local and national political stories, opinion, comment and analysis.

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