Covid-19 and Universities – what does it all mean

As a parent and as someone who works closely with the UK University sector, it has been chastening – but in many cases also heartening – to see how Universities and students have responded to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

While the headlines have been about exams and admissions, what are the stories below the surface, and what can we expect the new “normal” to be?

University students and staff will now mostly be at home.  Some will be continuing their work as best they can, with plenty of evidence of excellent remote learning, whereas others will have little to do and will be wondering what the future holds for them.  If the restrictions on social contact and movement are relaxed by the end of the Summer, then lives may return to something approaching normal – albeit a modified version with different working practices and expectations.

Student looking fed up using laptop and mobile phone. Image: Dreamstime

Like many people, I have been working from home since mid-March; I am fortunate enough to have space for a home office and have a (generally) resilient IT set up.  Our discussions across several sectors have revealed that many people would be happy to embrace more remote working, and many of our clients and collaborators are seeing that this way of working has little or no impact on our ability to deliver world class solutions. 

This is replicated across many businesses and is likely to put downward pressure on the requirement for conventional office space – while younger people thrive on social interaction, they are also the most adept at doing so in a virtual world.  Will this change in expectation have an impact on space requirements at Universities, whether for academic or support staff, or students?  Will more students be looking to a wholly online learning experience?  With the potential for over 300,000 additional undergraduates in the UK, in a decade’s time  space efficiency will be a key issue, and adopting new ways of learning and working will play a key part in making this work with the more limited funding which is likely to be available in the coming years.  We are already working with Universities to explore how to grasp these opportunities, and to build a robust and low carbon future with improved efficiency and outcomes.

While younger people thrive on social interaction, they are also the most adept at doing so in a virtual world.

Dr Mike Entwisle, education sector lead at Buro Happold

Turning to current and prospective students, the current situation will remain uncertain for some months to come.  With current students mostly at home, many will be missing the social activity which they have become used to at University, and there may be mental health impacts of this, particularly for those who have limited space or access to IT but whose courses are continuing.  While most families will of course be supportive, tensions will no doubt resurface from time in even the most harmonious domestic settings.

Perhaps what is most concerning is what will happen if significant restrictions on social contact and movement remain into the Autumn and beyond.  Will Universities and schools be able to reopen for the 2020-21 academic year?  Will the admissions process for a whole year group fall apart if students en masse look to have a gap year?  One answer could be to restructure the University academic year to run from January to December.  For the next academic year, this would hopefully take us closer to having a long term answer to dealing with Covid-19, while in future years it would allow time for applications to be made on the basis of A level results, rather than the widely criticised practice of using estimated grades.  This would also allow students to recharge their batteries after school and avoid these life changing decisions being rushed, which can happen through the existing clearing process. 

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