The UK’s universities are bracing for a coronavirus train wreck

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Universities across the UK thought they had everything sorted. In March, near the end of the second semester, they had rushed to deliver online teaching, as the coronavirus pandemic forced them to shut their doors to maintain the safety of staff and students. With the spread of the virus easing over the summer, institutions began planning for the safe arrival of students in September. Stop-gap measures hurriedly introduced in March had become permanent by August; policies and guidance on social distancing, sanitising, and digital teaching alongside limited face-to-face tuition on campus had been drawn up having in mind the capped numbers of students universities then expected to receive.
Then came the A-level results.


Clearing day is the busiest day of the year for UK universities. Thousands of students receive their A-level grades, and those who underperform academically against their expectations call universities in a distressed, last-ditch attempt at negotiating where they’ll spend the next three years.
This year was always going to be more complicated, courtesy of the novel coronavirus. Staff who would ordinarily cram into a single room on campus turned into a makeshift call centre were instead working from home. “It’s an event senior executives take a very close interest in, due to its impact on the bottom line,” explains one university admissions officer at a post-1992 university (converted from a polytechnic university or college after the liberalisation of the market in 1992) who asked not to be named because they aren’t authorised to speak to the media.
“It’s more sensitive and laboured over than any freshers week, examination period or graduation ceremony.” But when staff received A-level results, the weekend before results day, things got worse.
At the post-1992 university, the number of applicants meeting target grades was way below what was expected – the outcome of a poorly designed algorithm meant to replace the exams cancelled due to the pandemic. Crisis meetings were held to decide how low to set the barrier for entry. Months of training and planning were scrapped and rewritten on the morning students across the country received their grades. “We had to write policy on the spot just to try and provide applicants with some form of guidance as they had nowhere else to turn,” says the admissions officer.


It wasn’t just universities rewriting policy on the hoof. On August 17, waking up to the scale of the problem, the education secretary performed a screeching u-turn. He said students could rely on grades based on teachers’ assessments, rather than algorithmically-generated ones, and removed a cap on the number of students universities could admit this coming academic year. The idea was to allow those who had been initially penalised by the algorithm, missing out on university places, to study where they had intended.
But the decision to placate students had a knock-on effect. Universities, already stretched to tackle the challenge of teaching during a pandemic, now have to deal with an unexpected, last-minute influx of new students they had not prepared for. “One scandal is being resolved by setting off a ticking time bomb to the next,” says the admissions officer.
At Newcastle University, health and safety planning for Covid-safe teaching has undergone three significant rewrites since May, as the understanding of how coronavirus is transmitted changed. “We’re constantly tweaking,” says Samantha Dainty, the university’s occupational health and safety service manager
In the last three months, the university has developed its policy to limit the risk of the three known main modes of transmission: close contact through respiratory droplets, transmission on surfaces, and transmission through smaller airborne particles.


Minimising risk of infection has involved a radical redesign of how the university functions. Every ventilation system across the campus has been checked to make sure it doesn’t recycle air that could carry the coronavirus elsewhere. Individual departments have carried out modelling of how students move through the university’s hundreds of buildings and thousands of rooms, in order to devise one-way systems that allow students and staff to spend as little time as possible next to each other as they move through the campus. Doors have been flagged as entrance- or exit-only to help. “It’s about trying to avoid people clustering in communal areas,” Dainty says. All those changes were implemented with a given maximum number of students in mind, a figure based on the cap the education secretary was forced to scrap last week.
As a highly-ranked Russell Group university, Newcastle was one of the places that saw students fall short of grade requirements under algorithmically-determined marks, but will now see more applicants meet the barrier. It’s now working to accept all students who meet the terms of their original offer of a place, depending on the ability to do so safely.That is a problem many universities are grappling with. Suddenly, months of planning have been jeopardised by a last-minute decision that made preparations outdated. The faculty at Staffordshire University’s London campus started planning how they could bring students back to teaching spaces almost as soon as they left them in late March. Prime minister Boris Johnson had just announced a nationwide lockdown, and while frontline teaching staff at universities across the land scrambled to transfer in-person classes online, support staff and those not timetabled to teach began preparations for how tuition could continue through the pandemic.
The goal was ensuring that students who remain away from campus have a broadly similar experience to those able to live and study at university in-person. Most institutions are going down the path of “blended” learning, with the majority of lectures delivered online, and more limited opportunities for small-group teaching happening on campus, for those who choose to attend.
One of the challenges universities face is a shortage of rooms. Timetabling for some of the most popular universities was already constrained before the pandemic, with lecture halls and seminar rooms fully booked or over capacity most days. “In normal times, demand for any kind of bookable space is so high,” says Dainty.
Safely socially distancing reduces larger lecture rooms to less than 15 per cent of their capacity, according to a Russell Group university’s internal documents seen by WIRED. Moving lectures online alleviates some of that, but smaller seminar rooms that previously could fit 60 students now fit less than 30, with one-way systems and blocked-off desks. Smaller rooms that once fit 25 people may now only accommodate a handful safely.
“All that has meant grossly limited numbers of people on campus,” says Dainty. It’s also been a headache for individual departments’ timetabling and teaching staff, who are having to extend the teaching day and stagger lectures to reduce the number of people on campus at any one time, and to allow for cleaning of rooms between teaching. “Usually on the hour you’d have a massive movement of students through the corridors and pressures on lifts and stairwells,” says Dainty. “We have to look at that and time to allow people in and out of buildings.”
“We were already going through things like changing the room layouts,” explains Matt Huxley, a lecturer at Staffordshire University’s London campus, who was involved in Covid-planning meetings. “But this time all those meetings became a lot trickier to figure out, because almost every sentence ended with: ‘Yeah, but we can’t socially distance then’.”
Eric Lybeck, an academic at the University of Manchester, believes part of the problem stems from long before the A-level results debacle. “I don’t think anyone would have chosen [blended] learning if it wasn’t necessary to get funding via student fees,” he says. “If the [online only] Open University charges £6,000 for their course, you can’t really charge £9,000. If most universities had been bailed out properly by the government, most would have opted for online-only.” Instead, says Lybeck, universities realised they needed to offer some kind of in-person teaching – which they would have been able to do safely based on their planning, until the results farrago meant student numbers could skyrocket.
Now universities are having to juggle a surge in applicants while also trying to maintain staff and student safety. Some universities are facing a 200 per cent increase in students. Durham University has even offered students money to defer joining until next year, to better manage numbers.
Meanwhile, less popular universities fret that the removal of caps could cause the opposite problem: empty rooms and a lack of tuition fee cash, as students opt for places at more established institutions that no longer have caps on numbers. “It’s entirely possible, and even likely, that we will see several universities become bankrupt in the next 12 months,” says the admissions officer. Some could struggle to survive: industry body Universities UK has written to the government to ask for financial support for ailing institutions. (While it may seem like a lack of students could be a good selling point – with potentially less transmission risk – advertising you’re an unpopular university would likely turn off applicants.)
But there’s a bigger issue. Universities planned for a safe reopening with a certain number of students. Dealing with potentially double that number, with just weeks before they arrive on campus, means they are struggling to figure out how to manage that ballooned intake. “Every single university is trying to lay down the tracks at the same time as the train is derailing,” says the post-1992 admissions officer.
Lybeck believes universities will be able to manage the risks of a safe face-to-face teaching experience. “I think they can make things relatively safe in the same way retail stores and pubs do the best they can,” he says. But the uncertainty – and the spanner the government threw in in the works at the last minute – makes it more likely than ever that we’ll see a repeat of what happened this spring.
“I think in the end we’re just going to be back online,” Lybeck says. “Students, quite rightly, are not going to be thrilled by that.”
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