Providing certainty in uncertain circumstances – how, when, where?

During the House of Commons Education Committee on the 18th May 2020, Nicola Dandridge, Chief Executive of the Office for Students (the university “watchdog”) stated UK universities must be “as clear as they can be” about the campus teaching and learning arrangements for student applicants in the coming academic year. She further stated UK universities must provide “clarity” so that prospective students “know what they are getting” when they accept offers. Unite Student’s most recent survey, published on 9th June 2020, also states 89% of students surveyed are keen to get back on campus once it is safe. It is however a big task for universities to meet this expectation given the uncertainty the whole sector and nation are facing from COVID-19 with the real-time challenges these unprecedented circumstances continue to present.

This blog explores the themes emerging about what the future may look like as universities begin piecing together how to operate an institution and a campus in a post-COVID world for the coming 2020/21 academic year. Students (both existing and prospective) and other sector participants including PBSA providers will be impacted if, when and how universities decide to re-open their campuses and how teaching is implemented.

Sector Stability

The business support package announced by the UK government on 4th May 2020, as detailed in our previous blog, has been put in place to provide stability to the sector. The Office for Students has recognised the potential financial impact of COVID-19 will likely be significant. The business support package has been designed to ease potential cash flow issues with a key feature being the bringing forward of tuition fee payments to universities. Additionally, during the House of Commons Education Committee on the 18th May 2020, Nicola Dandridge informed the committee discussions are also ongoing about what, if any, additional support may be needed. Some universities and colleges are being monitored on a weekly basis regarding their financial stability to ensure shocks to the sector can be prevented and students are protected.

Uncertainty around the future financial stability of universities stems from the unknown number of students, both domestic and international, set to accept places for the 2020/21 academic year. The financial picture will become clearer in August, once student applicants have made their university choices. Only after this, will there be a greater understanding of any impact.

Blended Learning and Campus Adaptation

Universities are individually publicising outline arrangements for campus teaching and learning. Universities UK surveyed 92 universities about their plans, publishing the results on the 17th June 2020. 97% of universities surveyed confirmed they will provide in-person teaching in line with government and public health guidance at the start of the term this year. While detailed arrangements are mostly yet to be communicated, “blended learning” is a phrase that is being frequently used regarding how students can expect to be taught. Blended learning refers to a combination of digital and small face-to-face classes that observe social distancing measures. This has been the most common teaching and learning theme announced, with universities including, but not limited to, Queen’s University Belfast, Nottingham Trent University, Anglia Ruskin University, UCL, Universities of Manchester, Edinburgh, Bristol, Warwick and Oxford all reporting this as their favoured approach under existing circumstances. Cambridge University is, so far, the only university to confirm there will be no face-to-face lectures for the entire of the 2020/21 academic year, however went on to clarify that smaller teaching groups may still be hosted if social distancing rules permit it. Sheffield Hallam and Keele Universities and the Universities of Bolton and Worcester are the institutions to date, to publicly state their strategies trying to retain as much of an on-campus student experience as possible through implemented safety measures such as the compulsory wearing of face masks, one-way systems across campus, hand sanitisation points and temperature check scanners at building entrance points. Student safety is a key priority across all strategies and announcements made.

Universities UK, the sector representative published on 3rd June 2020 guidance and a framework for universities to consider when planning to re-open their campuses. The guidance pivots around nine key principles which focus on the key areas that both students and university staff will be seeking clarity around including health, hygiene, safety and campus layout changes to adapt to social distancing. This guidance is not prescriptive and has been published as a framework that universities can use in their toolkit to adapt their strategies to the post-COVID landscape.

PBSA Adaptations

The emergence of “blended learning” suggests most universities still expect the academic year to begin in September (or near to September) as typically planned and for students to live near their respective institution to attend the face-to-face elements of the new learning structure. Only a few universities have stated a January start date is optional for international and postgraduate students (including Universities of Brunel and Exeter). Students arriving/returning to their university town means there will likely be a demand for PBSA. However, at this time, it is unknown how many students will be able to physically arrive at university, particularly international students. This will become clearer in the coming months when there is greater clarity around travel, quarantine requirements and the number of students accepting places becomes known.

Simultaneous to the higher education sector’s adaptations taking shape, private PBSA operators are also making preparations and changes to their schemes. Three of the largest third party PBSA operator platforms in the UK, namely CRM, Fresh Property Group and Host have kindly shared with us how they are adapting to the post-COVID landscape, with their primary aim being to make PBSA as safe as possible. Some of the key adaptations being implemented across PBSA schemes are summarised below.

 Social distancing adaptations:

  • Protective screens are installed at reception areas
  • Hand sanitisation facilities at various points including entrances and exits
  • Enhanced cleaning regimes with particular focus on high-use touch points
  • Signage to remind students about the new measures in place

Socialising in a post-COVID landscape:

  • Furniture within communal areas will be rearranged to allow for social distancing
  • Online and offline social activities programmes are being developed including activities such as online yoga
  • If communal areas within buildings are present such as a gym or cinema room, they will be bookable to ensure social distancing is maintained
  • Communal study spaces will be adjusted to allow for social distancing between available desks.

The operators have reported no discernible shift in demand for different unit types. Studio units are popular with international and postgraduate students (a known trend prior to COVID-19) with little change in demand for cluster flats. Just a small number of students have requested a room change to a studio for the coming year. A cluster flat is considered a “household” therefore social distancing rules do not apply within it, providing students the opportunity to socialise with a small group of other students. This feeds in to the idea being considered by universities regarding students living in a small “bubble” with other students who study the same course.

Universities face additional challenges with their accommodation when compared to the private PBSA sector. Based on CBRE research, we estimate that of the student accommodation stock owned and operated by universities in the UK, 38% of stock is non en-suite. The private PBSA sector has significantly less at just 9% of all beds. Non en-suite stock could require additional plans around use and sanitisation of communal facilities.

Trying to provide some form of certainty to students about how and where they are going to be taught in the coming year while negotiating evolving government advice is forcing universities to make real time adaptations to their teaching and learning plans. Some form of hybrid online and limited face-to-face contact, the “blended” approach, for 2020/21 appears to be the direction of travel for many universities. Universities and PBSA providers are gradually publishing information about plans and adaptations as they are confident in the certainty they can give to students ahead of accepting their university places about the student experience under evolving circumstances.

Sources: Times Higher Education, Office for Students, House of Commons Education Committee, Universities UK, Unite Students

Principle for emerging from lockdown by Universities UK can be found here.

Special thanks to: CRM, Fresh Property Group, Host Student Living for sharing their preparation plans with us. PBSA operator information is correct as at the date it was provided.