Students up and down the country will be gearing up to start the life-changing journey of going to university. However, in the midst of the pandemic, the beginning of that journey is going to look and feel a little different this year.

While students might not be sitting in large lecture halls or joining the usual freshers’ activities, universities are going above and beyond to make sure newcomers and returning students will get an enriching student experience in a safe as way possible.

The Government has just updated its guidance on reopening buildings and campuses with the latest public health advice to help universities prepare for this year.

Here are five things some universities are doing to ensure higher education, and the experience that comes with it, can continue as safely as possible this term:

1. Lectures and teaching

Students can expect to see large lectures being delivered online with smaller tutorials and group discussions happening in person in most universities.

Start times between these in-person sessions might be staggered to avoid large gatherings of people, with teaching spaces cleaned between seminars, one-way walking systems and hand sanitiser units located around campus.

Universities have been delivering innovative ways of online teaching since the start of the pandemic. St George’s medical school at the University of London created virtual ward rounds with patients whose condition changes mimicked clinical decision making in real time, and Kings College London created a virtual dental school so students can learn from clinical scenarios.

At Imperial College, Master’s students embarked on a simulated trip to the Pyrenees conducting field work and discussing what could be interpreted from hi-res photographs, Google Earth, and drone-scanned models of geological formations.

While at Northampton University, performing arts students continued their rehearsals of Shakespeare plays on video conferencing apps, and completed two 90-minute films for the final production.

2. Accommodation

The Government expects universities to identify ‘households’ within student accommodation to manage routine contact as safely as possible. More than six people can be a ‘household’.These households in halls would be students living in the same flat or on the same floor who share a kitchen or bathroom.

Loughborough University are providing subsidised accommodation for international students quarantining in student accommodation, with free coach travel from key airports to temporary self-isolation rooms set up on campus.

3. Social events

The majority of universities will still be holding welcome fairs whether online or in-person to welcome new students in a socially distanced way.

All social activities will need to comply with the latest rules on social gatherings, limiting groups to 6 participants or their household. If there are more than six students in a household or they are in the same support bubble, they can socialise with each other.

Venues like student union bars and cafes will be open and formally organized sport is exempt from the six person rule and can go ahead, as long as covid secure guidelines are met.

The University of York is planning socially distanced events such as cinema screenings, comedy performances, outdoor street food stalls and events run by societies in tipis and yurts.

The University of Derby will also be running a range of socially distanced activities from quizzes to mini golf. They will have a specially-constructed Freshers’ Village, complying with social distancing, which includes spaces to relax and unwind with yoga and meditation.

Liverpool Hope University’s Welcome Week programme encourages newcomers to make friends while being socially-distanced including through picnics and meals from fish and chip vans, and video streaming morning workouts and local band performances.

4. Transport

Many providers are developing additional transport options for students and staff. The University of Manchester is working with Transport for Greater Manchester to increase cycle storage facilities and cycle hire docking stations on campus. The University of Bristol has altered its class times so that they do not coincide with peak travel times. 

5. Student support services

Universities offer a number of services to help students in need, from mental health support and career advice to funds for those that face financial hardship. Institutions will be working to ensure students can still easily access these vital services in person and online.

Providers know the impact the pandemic has had on mental health and many have boosted their existing services to make sure students have the support they need, including for those having to self-isolate. Students should reach out if they need help during this challenging time.

The University of Lincoln has partnered with Fika to offer students and staff access to online resources, programmes and support through the Fika App.

The University of Gloucestershire has relaunched its online mental health community as Togetherall, an anonymous free service where students can share experiences and receive peer-to-peer support, in a safe environment monitored by trained professionals.

Buckinghamshire New University is running online induction seminars for Welcome Week to encourage students to use support services and develop strategies to build resilience as they start their university journey.

The OfS and Student Minds have also launched a new online platform, Student Space, that will help students  access vital mental health and wellbeing resources.

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