How universities can maximise intake while maintaining social distancing

A level grades, social distancing and the university experience in an almost post-covid UK

After a week of confusion, the UK government has agreed that teacher-based assessments can be used for A level grades, and therefore for University admissions. Setting aside any issues of grade inflation, what does this mean for Universities in a time where their physical capacity is severely limited by the need for social distancing? How can high tariff universities accommodate larger intakes – and what does this mean for those institutions who might lose out as students “trade up” through the process known as “adjustment”?

Buro Happold’s Analytics team has been working with seven leading UK and Irish Universities to help them plan their reopening. We have been struck by the number and complexity of interrelated issues which this involves, and the dedication and diligence which the universities are putting into this process.

social distancing in lecture theatre

While our work has enabled some universities to plan on a larger capacity than they had previously thought, contact teaching hours will of course be limited compared to those from previous years. But how to equitably distribute these? If a university can provide an average of five hours per week contact time, should this be the same across all subjects, or should (as is normally the case) science and engineering students continue to have more face to face hours than many studying arts and humanities?

While we do not claim to have the definitive answer to this, we have been creating interactive simulation tools which can help institutions to make these decisions. Through rapid modelling and scenario testing, Universities have been able to look at different space types and interrogate the effects of factors such as duration of sessions, how class changeovers work, maximum capacity of any one space, and cleaning strategies. Many of our recommendations include key interventions to reduce risk, including one-way systems, barriers, signage, and the broadening of some external circulation routes; these recommendations then contribute to strategies for transport and active crowd management.

Example modeling of a ‘traditional’ classroom layout vs. an optimised format.

While high tariff universities will be grateful for the extra income which the removal of the student number cap will provide – even if it will increase the pressures on social distancing – others will suffer from a drop in student numbers which may leave some of them in perilous financial situations. However, these are often the institutions most focused on student satisfaction, and the lower student numbers may relieve some of the spatial pressure which other universities will be dealing with.

there will no doubt need to be changes to operational strategies as the term progresses

Dr Mike Entwisle, Partner

What is certain, however, is that the forthcoming term is unlikely to go completely according to plan, and that there will no doubt need to be changes to operational strategies as the term progresses – and we have the tools ready to respond rapidly and help universities navigate whatever challenges are thrown at them.

Managing corridor and stairwell traffic can help reduce interactions between different groups.

Looking beyond the immediate challenges of operating with social distancing in force, all the institutions we have spoken to are looking to use the current situation to stimulate innovation in teaching and learning, adopting a blended approach for the long term. Transferring didactic teaching – particularly in large groups – to remote methods surely makes sense, and with the envisaged reduction in office space requirements, this could free up significant space which will be necessary for more intensive group working, and the predicted rise in UK student numbers over the coming decade.

Spatial utilisation – long the bugbear of many university space managers – will have to rise if capacity is to also rise in a cash-strapped sector. Buro Happold’s sensor-based Campus Analytics tools – will allow real-time interrogation of actual space use, improving cost efficiency and student experience, and playing a key role in a move to a zero-carbon sector in the coming decades.

Does this mean the end of the lecture theatre and the academic cellular office? Perhaps not entirely but change is inevitable – and will be accelerated in the wake of the pandemic. To discuss how we can help you and your University solve the challenges of the ‘next normal’ get in touch with one of our experts below.

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