With results for A-level students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland published today, thousands of teenagers will find out if they’ve received a spot at a university.

But with the continuing coronavirus pandemic, university is likely to be a bit different this year.

There are many challenges facing UK universities – student and staff health and welfare, living arrangements, and how to do a socially distanced Freshers week.

Here are just some of the ways university might change:

‘Blended’ learning

Most universities will take a “blended approach” to teaching and learning, with many universities announcing that lectures involving whole year groups will be given online.

In addition, some in-person teaching will be provided, such as tutorials, but they will take place in bigger rooms in a socially distanced way.

Doug Clow, an online learning consultant who has spent 20 years at the Open University and is now advising universities on how to manage the pandemic, says he thinks universities have done very well in the circumstances.

He said: “What they’re faced with was a complete nightmare, suddenly having to find a way of teaching without having the students there. And I think given those constraints, their emergency measures have been pretty good.

“There’s been some fantastic work by IT teams and by individual academics, and by learning and teaching support units”.

Some students and their parents have raised concerns about “value for money” – will the teaching be of a similar level if it’s online?

Mr Clow said: “Realistically speaking, the quality is going to be a bit lower – but in terms of value – you’re getting a university education in the middle of a pandemic. And that’s really hard – and expensive – to deliver.

“I think it’s still good value, it’s just a very different deal”.

Maya Kateli, an A-level student attending university for the first time in September, says concern over online lectures isn’t necessarily about the quality of teaching, but the hindrance it may impose on making friends.

She said: “We’re used to using technology but that doesn’t really replace being in a classroom with your friends or meeting new people”.

While Zara Kolah, another A-level student, added: “The atmosphere of being in university, especially at the start, the buzz of being in a big lecture theatre, won’t be the same because I’ll just be sat in my uni accommodation by myself on a bed.

“I guess it could be quite an isolating experience rather than a shared one with people who are the same age as you and have also just finished their A-levels”.

Freshers week and socialising

The concern over socialising extends past online lectures of course.

Those arriving at university for the first time could be faced with virtual freshers week events and one-way systems across campus in a bid to prevent Covid-19 transmission.

“Everyone looks forward to freshers and club events. I’ve been looking forward to that for however many years, and then for that to be suddenly taken away from is quite a hard pill to swallow,” Zara said.

“There’s so much emphasis on freshers week, on making friends and going out and having a good time.

“I’m not sure what going to happen now in terms of the social aspect at the beginning. I think it will definitely be harder to make friends.”

David Burnell, an A-level student heading to university in September, is hoping for a re-do of freshers later in the year.

He said: “I still do think now is the best time to go to university.

“We have our doubts about freshers week but I think universities will run a freshers week of sorts when we get there, even if it’s partly online, or they’ll give us a freshers week later in the year, or next year”.

Mary Vincent, the deputy vice-president for education at the University of Sheffield, said plans are being put in place to make life at university as sociable as possible.

She said: “Our students’ union is working very hard to make full preparations so that the normal parts of student life – societies, sports, recreation, can all be offered.

“It may well be online – certainly, a lot of the induction activities will be online – but they will still be available and enable students to meet each other, not just around the subjects that they’re studying, but around the interests that they have”.

Professor Vincent also said that while some sixth-formers may think about deferring for a year, many others will look to go to university this year rather than face a gap year with little to offer.

Loss of income

The three main problems universities face due to the pandemic, according to Mr Clow, are the loss of confidence in catering income, the loss of international students and the loss of domestic students.

He said: “Nobody is having face to face conferencing, and the catering income has gone – that’s probably gone at Christmas too, it may well be gone at Easter, and it may even be gone next summer. We don’t know.”

Some universities have agreed to introduce an optional new January start for international students who may not be able to travel in September.

While many universities have made great strides to get their online learning up and running, living arrangements still remain somewhat of a question mark.

It has been reported that students may have to live in a “bubble” with people on their course when campuses reopen as part of measures to limit social mixing.

Students could also be asked to come in for a day in smaller assigned groups to minimise movement around campus, and to reduce the number of social interactions.

A greater use of outdoor spaces for classes and extracurricular activities are also among the ideas being considered by universities.

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