Coronavirus could delay start to next academic year

Grace Piercy reports on the potential disruption to the academic year...

Grace Piercy
4th April 2020
Image: Flickr
There is growing concern over the chances of a delayed start to the 2020/21 academic year due to the coronavirus outbreak. Taking into account that the letter being sent to 30 million homes by the government warns that stricter restrictions could be put in place if necessary, an extended lockdown period is appearing increasingly likely.

Deputy Chief Medical Officer Jenny Harries has stated that lockdown alone could last six months, warning that “all of our efforts will be wasted” if the UK ends social distancing measures too rapidly. Harries optimistically added that “gradually we will be able to hopefully adjust some of the social distancing measures, and gradually get us all back to normal,” however, if lockdown alone were to last six months, then the next academic year may have to be delayed at least a month, into October.

It has not been officially made clear how long schools will be closed for, and their closure is dependent on the time it takes to delay the spread of COVID-19

Cabinet Minister Michael Gove has said that the behaviour of the public would influence how long the strict social distancing conditions would last. He told the BBC that the public should “prepare for a significant period when these measures are still in place”.

Both of these warnings would imply that there is a great possibility for a delayed start to the 2020/21 academic year. It has not been officially made clear how long schools will be closed for, and their closure is dependent on the time it takes to delay the spread of COVID-19, and thus on the public’s role in social distancing.

Those explicitly discussing education seem to agree, with Milton Keynes Council leader Pete Marland stating "we do not know what will happen in terms of school term time and provision for next year," adding that currently there was “uncertainty as to when schools will be able to open as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak.”

Universities remaining closed into September would mean there could be no open days for prospective students, no freshers' week, and no social opportunities for students, and universities may have to resort to online inductions, unless the start of the academic year is pushed back.

There are still strict measures in place that are preventing totally ‘normal’ life continuing

There is also the chance that teaching next year could be complicated by the need for further periods of social distancing, which may continue throughout this year.

The example of China’s official lockdown that ended after 12 weeks is frequently being used as hope that the UK’s lockdown will only last that long, however there are still strict measures in place that are preventing totally "normal" life continuing. The concern remains that even if official lockdown in the UK ends, large-scale social distancing may have to continue.

Oxford’s Professor Simon Marginson stated that “realistically, we are not going to see a return to face-to-face education in September.” Marginson also said that universities would need to cut fees if social distancing stays in place, saying that online learning “needs to be seen as a substantially different product, a different educational experience”. These warnings have been echoed by other Higher Education experts.

Alex Usher stated that there was “no way any responsible university can spend the summer doing anything but preparing for a term which is genuinely online”, meaning that universities should be preparing for no face-to-face teaching come September. In his article for WonkHE, he identified five feasible solutions: universities can start September “online” and plan for the whole winter semester to continue that way that way; they can start September “online” and transition back to “in-person” when lockdown and social distancing restrictions are reduced; they can completely delay the start of the term until it is possible to do it “in-person”; they can plan to start the new academic year in January; or they can hope that a September start remains an option.

Despite this, Newcastle University states that they "anticipate that the start of term will remain as Monday 28 September 2020. If this were to change, we will let our existing and prospective students know." This may seem surprising given that graduation ceremonies set for mid-July have been postponed until winter.

Alongside changes to the start date, it has also been pointed out that if the COVID-19 outbreak causes “substantial changes to universities (meaning online only or no face-to-face teaching), fees may have to drop not just as a matter of fairness, but to make sure students want to come”, according to Buckingham University’s Professor Alan Smithers.

86% of applicants studying A-levels were "continuing with their application as planned"

UCAS and YouthSight Survey

This belief is backed by over 300,000 people who have already signed a petition calling on the government to reimburse students for this year’s tuition fees, due to the disruption of the strikes in December and March as well as the COVID-19 pandemic.

Regarding university admissions for next year, 86% of applicants studying A-levels responded to a joint UCAS and YouthSight survey this week saying they were "continuing with their application as planned", despite disruption caused by coronavirus. However it has also been pointed out that universities being shut now will have an effect on university admissions for the coming year.

A government source has said that each university could face caps on the number of UK undergraduates it could admit for the 2020/21 academic year, this being supported by many higher education leaders. A limit on admission would also mean that students currently applying would have their choices restricted. It is rumoured that some students may even have offers retracted by the universities who offered them places.

Nick Hillman, the head of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said that “there are people who have long wanted to restrict access to higher education who might see this as the chance to do it.”

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