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Jacob King/PA

‘Campus covid’ was as inevitable as freshers’ flu – here’s how universities can look after their students

The coronavirus cases at Glasgow University are the latest in a number of suspected outbreaks in universities across the UK. The timing of students returning to campus couldn’t be worse. As some in the medical community have argued, the key to safe reopening is to do so at a time when community transmission is minimal.

With coronavirus infections currently doubling every week and the government introducing new measures to bring these rates down, having up to a million students back on campuses will inivitably lead to more such outbreaks and contribute to the continued spread of the virus. And with some calling on the government to consider making students spend Christmas on campus, away from their families, it is increasingly looking like bringing them back was the wrong thing to do. Attention now must be on how best to support them in the face of the anxiety this will undoubtedly cause.

According to a Universities UK survey, 97% of UK universities are proceeding with a “blended learning” approach combining remote and in-person teaching during this academic year.

It’s hard to blame individual universities – without the brand value of Oxford or Cambridge, and lacking serious financial support from the government, they have felt compelled to offer blended learning to remain competitive for applicants. Still, it is worth pointing out that many students have said they are very supportive of a delayed or remote start if it means more face-to-face teaching down the line.

In taking a blended approach, universities now face an ethical dilemma: to justify having students back on campus, they need to provide enough in-person teaching to make it worth their while, yet to reduce coronavirus risk, they also need to limit face-to-face contact as much as possible.

Four empty desks in a university library.
It’s not clear what ‘blended learning’ will look like for UK students. Jacob King/PA

The better option for public health would have been a commitment, by government and the higher education sector as a whole, to providing online-only education for the first semester of this academic year at least. But it’s too late for that now. The question is instead how universities can balance their duties to educate students with their civic responsibilities to society at large. Here are some suggestions.

Managing uncertainty

As ours, and others’ research is beginning to show, one of the biggest adverse impacts on people’s mental health during the pandemic has been the uncertainty surrounding policy. With the government introducing new regulations that will last six months, and the threat of local lockdowns continuing to loom, students now need to receive clear information, as early as possible, as to what the contingency plans are for their curricular and extra-curricular activities in the event of greater restrictions.

This will help them prepare, logistically and emotionally. For example, knowing now how in-person teaching will be replaced, how course or assessment content will change, or what pastoral support will be available during the Christmas holidays if students are forced to stay on campus, will help to reduce anxiety.

Blended learning

In normal times, a blended learning approach has many advantages. However, these are far from normal times – and a few caveats are worth pointing out.

According to a recent survey by the National Union of Students, 70% of students are at least somewhat concerned about the risk of contracting COVID-19 on campus, with one in ten being “extremely concerned”. Research suggests that, particularly for those prone to anxiety or other mental health conditions, sensitivity to a perceived threat can negatively impact attention and hence the ability to learn.

As such, worrying about catching COVID-19 and whether distancing and hygiene is being upheld appropriately (even where it is), might either deter anxious students from attending class or affect their ability to concentrate while there.

An aerial view of students walking in different directions.
Students need help managing uncertainty during these difficult times. Jacob King/PA

That’s why universities need to prioritise student wellbeing during these times. Research suggests that effective blended learning requires a positive environment – that is, one where learners feel safe and motivated and their emotions are constructively appraised and supported. The pastoral responsibilities of academic staff – the primary points of contact for students – will thus be greater than ever to identify those who are struggling academically or emotionally. Additional training in how to provide this support and how and when to refer students for additional professional support will be necessary.

Looking out for the most vulnerable

Students in lower socioeconomic groups, disabled students and international students have been particularly affected by the pandemic so far.

Universities, supported by government, need to pay particular attention to these most vulnerable groups; for example, to either make their return home as smooth as possible if they need to go, or to support those who may need to stay on campus during the Christmas holidays but who might lose income from part-time jobs due to the pandemic.

Preparing for the future

We should not lose sight of the fact that, although coronavirus may not be going away, we can be hopeful that it could soon be under control if a vaccine is rolled out by the next academic year, if not sooner. Ahead of a widely available vaccination programme, universities can reconfigure their delivery of courses to bring forward material that is more suitable to online learning and leave material that benefits from, or requires, face-to-face teaching (for example lab or practical work) until later in the course.

The debate around returning to university during a pandemic serves as a reminder to all of us in higher education about the importance of face-to-face learning. Despite the growth of online courses, recorded lectures and reports of poor in-person attendance on campus, the threat of having it taken away reminds us that the centuries-old tradition of gathering in lecture halls and seminar rooms is, after the pandemic ends, something worth saving.

This article was updated on September 24 to include the latest reporting on new student outbreaks and how universities might help students over the festive holiday period

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