University leaders have suggested that students could live and study within the same group to minimise mixing and reduce the spread of coronavirus when term starts in September.
A whole host of potential new safety measures have been suggested to support a socially-distanced student life – including a virtual freshers’ week, online lectures and controlling entry to accommodation.
Speaking to the BBC, Staffordshire University vice-chancellor Professor Liz Barnes said she had discussed the idea of protective bubbles with other universities, with her university having bubbles of up to eight students.
By housing students in groups taking the same subjects, with timetables that bring them on campus at the same time, it is hoped it would minimise contact with other students.
Barnes said: “The more that we can keep them into a small group of regular interaction the better in current circumstances.”
Students would be allowed to see others outside, but there would be controls on who could go inside accommodation, alongside an assumption that university halls would have a big reduction in capacity, so that social distancing could be possible and facilities such as kitchens and bathrooms could be safely shared.
Most universities are discussing introducing a blend of online lectures and in-person teaching for smaller groups to try and minimise numbers on campus.
However, even if courses are entirely online, Universities Minister Michelle Donelan has said universities in England will still be able to charge full tuition fees.
According to a survey from the University and College Union, 71% of students would prefer to push back the start of term, if it meant they had more in-person and less online teaching.
“Students need clarity as to what they can expect from the next academic year in order for them to make informed choices,” says the National Union of Students.
The deadline for making a firm choice of university is 18 June – and the higher education watchdog, the Office for Students, says applicants have to be told with ‘absolute clarity’ how they will be taught. And if a university subsequently changes what it offers then students should be released from their choices.