Concerns, Costs, and Caution: How Can We Safely Reopen UK Universities?

For both university staff and prospective students, the future looks daunting. Universities across the UK are still going through a period of transition, adapting to the ‘new normal’ and negotiating the most safe and productive ways to reopen their establishments in the autumn. Recently, many British universities have admitted severe funding concerns, with some being criticised for their over-reliance on fees from international students and many at risk of going bust.

The concerns

It’s a difficult time for everyone, and as much as been left to the discretion of individual universities, meaning there have been some huge decisions to make. Despite a number of universities, such as Cambridge, committing to a full year of online teaching, one UK-wide survey revealed that 97 per cent of universities would in fact offer face-to-face teaching from the start of term this year. The same survey also revealed that 78 universities (87 per cent) are intending to offer in-person social activities, including outdoor events and sporting activities.

While discussing the plan for reopening universities in the coming months, Alistair Jarvis, Chief Executive of Universities UK, said: “Although their first term will be different from previous years, most students can expect significant in-person teaching and a wide range of social activities and support services. Universities are committed to providing an engaging academic and social experience for all while ensuring the safety and welfare of the whole university community."

It looks like many students can expect to attend their next academic year in person, which will relieve the stress that was felt by many. In conversation with The Tab, one student expressed her concerns about returning to a university culture that just wasn’t the same:

“I have no idea what uni experience I’m going back to. Third year is the biggest year of my university life — what I graduate with will help me to shape my entire life. It’s my opportunity to give myself the best possible chance of a good graduate job which means I’ll have to study hard. But how can I do that if university facilities are still shut?”

The same student also expressed some serious concerns about the quality of education she would receive in relation to the tuition fees she is set to pay: “I know that the virus isn’t anyone’s fault, but a lack of facilities and online learning is not the quality of education I’m paying nine grand for.”

The precautions

If universities want to commit to in-person teaching next semester, they need to follow the government-approved rules and regulations as closely as possible to ensure the safety of both their staff and their pupils. Here are some of the key points that all universities need to consider before welcoming in a new raft of students.

Social distancing on campus

It is important to limit the number of students and staff allowed in each learning space and take into account any staff members or students who might be shielding. To find out which of your students and staff members are vulnerable, make sure to conduct an outreach activity that assesses prospective students and conduct risk assessments.

To make social distancing easy and clear, install floor stickers and plenty of signage around your campus.

International students to and from university

Although the number of international students might be lower this year than universities have seen in previous years, there will still be plenty of students heading to the UK from all over the world to begin or continue their studies.

Many countries are now on the exemption list from the mandatory two weeks self-isolation after arriving in the UK. However, there are still many locations that this rule applies to. Make sure that any international arrivals are aware of these restrictions and have somewhere comfortable to spend their self-isolation period.

Providing PPE

Providing PPE to students might not be a legal responsibility, but it’s certainly something worth considering. Supplying face masks to your staff and students before they re-enter the lecture halls, seminar rooms, and labs would not only improve their safety, but help put their minds at ease and allow them to better concentrate on their learning. It is also essential that hand sanitiser is provided in as many common areas as possible, particularly near door handles and on the way in and out of lecture halls.

According to data collated by Where The Trade Buys, these essential PPE items will come at a great cost to UK universities if the number of students and staff members for the 2019/20 period will be similar to the number we saw for the academic year of 2018/19 (2.38 million students and 439,955 staff members). For each university student and staff member to be provided with one facemask, the total combined cost for all the universities in the UK will be around £4,229,933. Furthermore, for each student and staff member to use two squirts of handsanatiser per hour for one day, the overall cost will amount to £355,314. The starting costs might sound staggering but making sure that all members of staff and each individual student feels safe, comfortable, and ready to engage is essential.   

Offer the options of online

Finally, it is a great idea to at least offer the option of online teaching. Most universities already practise this to an extent — recording lectures so that students can watch them back at a later date — but live streaming lectures is a great way forward for the coming academic year as well. This way, students will have the option of whether they want to attend the lecture in person or remain at home, a decision which may vary from day to day. It will also encourage anyone who is showing any possible Covid-19 symptoms to isolate without worrying that they’ll be falling behind on their education.


There is a lot of uncertainty regarding the upcoming academic year, but if universities are set on reopening and providing top-class education to students from all over the world, following these simple steps is essential. It is most definitely a positive sign that most universities feel able to resume to in-person teaching, and as long as precautions are made and government guidelines are followed, the next academic year should run smoothly.

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