Deputy Editor, Annie Smith, explores the differing responses of British universities to the Covid-19 pandemic.
With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, social distancing requirements, and restrictions on certain gatherings, universities across the UK are struggling to cope.
According to a survey by the University and College Union (UCU) one in five UK students said they were considering delaying their studies if their university was not operating as normal due to the pandemic. That would mean 120,000 fewer students this fall and a £760m loss for British universities.
While the University of Manchester has stated their lectures will all be online next semester, and the University of Cambridge going even further by putting lectures online for the entire academic year, other universities aren’t letting COVID-19 win that easily.
The University of Bolton recently released its plans for all students to return to campus in the fall safely, and its innovation could be a stepping stone for other universities to resume a new normal.
An animated video released last month presents the campaign as “#UniAsItShouldBe” with a futuristic-like guide for how their university will proceed, one of the few to present plans on how they will return.
The new system will include practical measures such as providing necessary safety equipment on campus (masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer) and screens in front of staff so they can conduct lectures safely, to more nuanced measures including providing all students with the use of a bicycle so they can avoid public transport and installing body temperature scanners at all entrances to the campus.
For buildings and learning spaces, Bolton has installed a one-way navigation system around their campus so that all students can keep 2m apart. A similar approach will also be applied to classrooms, where spaces that would normally accommodate 25 students will now host around 5 safely.
The University has introduced a system to allocate sessions for class times and other activities to reduce a student’s time on campus, so that classes can resume. They will also provide more online learning materials and a greater access to more digital resources alongside traditional paper documents.
Elsewhere, public computers will have keyboard covers so they can be safe to use, and workshops and laboratories have been designed to be COVID safe, although how exactly is not stated in the video. Their library will also feature a one-way system and allocated social-distancing trolleys so students can collect books.
In social zones, new safety measures have been introduced, including 1m high screens on small tables, larger distances between tables, and more snack stations to reduce queue sizes.
The video summarises with the note that, with this structure, “students can still enjoy the benefits of university life while still remaining safe,” a common struggle for all universities as they decide whether or not, and how, they will return in September.
When considering the investment of these measures, it is unclear how feasible such a plan would be for all universities to implement, and whether it would be a better investment to place more emphasis on online methods rather than striving for heading back to campus.
Currently, the University of St Andrews plans to welcome students back to campus on time this September, yet the plan outlined for how this will function remains vague. The University has emphasised social distancing and masks will be a part of University life and buildings will have distancing measures built in, possibly through one-way systems, yet specific details like Bolton has already presented to their students won’t come to light until August and September.
That being said, we are yet to see how far St Andrews will go in adopting measures like Bolton, and, if they do set out to do so, whether these measures would be as successful on the unique St Andrews campus.
The University of Bolton and University of St Andrews both have around 9,000 students, so surely if Bolton can cater bicycles to every student, St Andrews, with a larger endowment and global prestige, should be able to as well. However, because most students commute into town via walking, St Andrews should be able to avoid this by instead supporting the few students who commute via public transport and ensuring congested areas around town, such as large academic buildings or public study spaces, maintain a capacity that is significantly less than before, such as 50%.
Additionally, hallways in these buildings should offer a one-way system because most are too narrow for social distancing. However, it remains unclear if this plan could work in older buildings like those in St Salvator’s Quad or St Mary’s Quad, as a one-way system could lead to more congestion as students struggle to navigate an already close-quartered space.
In terms of preventing an outbreak of COVID-19 in September, there must be a system in place to control and reduce any spread of the virus, and therefore the temperature scanners at each entrance by Bolton does appear to be a intelligent solution. Yet the lack of a distinct campus at St Andrews and number of historic buildings could create problems, as students can not often distinguish whether they are “on campus” or “off campus”, such as academic buildings off South Street or North Street. A town-and-gown collaboration may be necessary to implement this if the entire town centre and North Haugh is to be considered the “campus” of St Andrews.
One of the biggest problems that St Andrews faces if it does return in September is the current lack of study and learning spaces. Oftentimes one module will be split between a number of locations around the town due to a lack of consistent space in one building, and arts modules have been forced to hold their lectures in science lecture theatres because the size of the arts lecture theatres does not accommodate all of its students.
If the University is already struggling with a lack of suitable lecture theatres, it seems unlikely that it will be able to allocate its students when social distancing is required. And if tutorials of 15 to 20 students need to shrink down further, the University will need to get creative with its classroom space to accommodate possibly double the amount of tutorials (assuming that every current tutorial will need to half in size at least).
This also applies to other public study and social spots such as the Library and the Union, which also struggle with space. Especially in peak deadline times, students often struggle to find a space in the Library, while societies must sometimes resort to holding events and meetings in public venues around town due to all the rooms in the Union being reserved by others.
The University of Bolton aims for all of its students to have a minimum of 12 hours of on-campus time so that students can still enjoy the benefits of university and thereby also improve their wellbeing by not spending all their time inside a small student flat or halls-of-residence bedroom. However, with social distancing meaning a much smaller capacity to the already crowded Union and Library, where will students be able to enjoy 12 hours of on-campus time? As a student who is familiar with how busy these spaces and other academic buildings often become, I can only imagine how much students and staff will struggle with new regulations for building capacities and social distancing in St Andrews.
While the University of Bolton does present thoughtful plans for how UK universities can proceed in the midst of a global pandemic, the town and infrastructure of the University of St Andrews presents unique struggles when trying to adopt Bolton’s new measures, particularly those that center around space and social distancing. I can only hope that St Andrews considers all possible options for returning safely, combining the creativity of Bolton’s ideas with the actualities of our small seaside town.