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Just 10 per cent of campus space available with social distancing

QAA advises universities on how to make the most of campus space this autumn

Physical distancing measures will reduce useable on-campus space to just 10-20 per cent of what is normally available, the universities quality watchdog has warned.

In guidance for universities on how to deliver the next academic year without compromising on quality, the Quality Assurance Agency said sticking to strict social distancing measures “reduces useable capacity to 10-20 per cent of actual space”.

Most universities the QAA spoke to said they were looking at “blended” delivery of on-campus teaching in small groups and making mass lectures available online for at least part of the 2020-21 academic year. Smaller seminar sizes will mean extra classes are needed, leading to a “significant staffing implication” for universities, the QAA said.

Libraries, music rooms and laboratories could allow small groups with Perspex screens and clear signs controlling contact with other students, but working days may need to be extended to incorporate extra classes and “buffer zones” into timetables, allowing time for rooms to be disinfected between classes and avoiding queues.

According to the QAA, larger universities are exploring “more complex approaches to smoothing the number of students” on campuses by “staggering the academic year”.

QAA said most universities are looking at a “staged return” of staff in the autumn, although non-academic staff may be asked to carry on working from home. Students who would be most disadvantaged by online learning are those who need specialised equipment that’s only available onsite.

On curriculum changes, the QAA stressed that long approval processes for changes to modules “may no longer be fit for purpose”, despite reducing the risk that changes could dampen quality and standards.

QAA said universities “may now need to accept a greater degree of risk in their initial decision-making” to be ready to teach safely in the autumn term, and should instead “focus on identifying and mitigating that risk over time rather than writing it out at the approval stage”.

The quality watchdog said universities should set up steering groups to help it make decisions quickly before the autumn term begins. Universities should also plan for further spikes in the pandemic and short-notice lockdowns, meaning assessments “may have to change not just in preparation for, but also during, the upcoming academic year—possibly on multiple occasions”.

“It will be wise to plan for any possible spikes or further waves of infections, and lockdown restrictions, local as well as national, which may be re-imposed in response,” the QAA said.

Elsewhere, the Universities and Colleges Employers Association released a set of principles on how to work safely during the coronavirus pandemic, agreed with five higher-education unions—the Educational Institute of Scotland, GMB, the University and College Union, Unison and Unite.

They call on universities to stick to government and public health advice on how to safely reopen campuses, carry out risk assessments before allowing staff and students to return, and consult with trade unions on plans for reopening.

Ucea stressed that universities must assess “how the transition back to campus will affect different cohorts of staff and take into account any equality considerations”, as well as impacts on vulnerable staff or those who live with people who are shielding.