What does England's new lockdown mean for universities?

Nicole Wootton-Cane
Nicole Wootton-Cane

3 November 2020 • 6 min read

In a sudden, but not entirely unsurprising speech to the nation on Saturday night, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that the country would be going back into a four week lockdown in an effort to bring down a rapid rise in coronavirus cases.

The lockdown is a dramatic turn in government policy, following weeks of insistence from ministers that their localised tier system was the right way to tackle the virus, and that another full national lockdown would not be necessary. 

The lockdown will start on Thursday 5 November, provided that Johnson gets the support he needs from MPs in the Commons on Wednesday. 

However, there are some key differences between this lockdown and the one we saw earlier in the year.

Significantly, universities, schools, and other educational institutions will be allowed to stay open, with students encouraged to still attend face-to-face teaching where possible. 

Universities will be able to make their own decisions about whether to stay open or move all teaching online, but most are expected to continue with the blended learning approach that they have put in place since September. 

Universities have already announced that their libraries and study spaces will remain open. However, university facilities such as gyms and art galleries will be forced to close, and catering outlets open only for takeaway services. 

Some students have welcomed the decision to keep campuses open. Jonathan Ustabasi, a second year Sports and Exercise Science student at University Academy 92 (UA92) in Old Trafford, Manchester, says: “I massively prefer being taught on campus – I take so much more in when I’m there, in person, with my tutor and other students. At home, there can be so many other distractions.   

 “The changes UA92 has made since COVID began means there are only a quarter of students on campus at any time, so social distancing isn’t a problem. The rooms are also really big, so for me, being on campus feels very safe and I don’t feel that this new lockdown will affect that.”

Becky Taylor, a first-year Liberal Arts student at the University of Nottingham said: “As a first year student living in halls I think it’s a good thing that universities are staying open as it gives some certainty and structure at this difficult time as it allows some kind of normality to continue.”

However, the University and College Union (UCU) say they have been contacted by numerous students who are reluctant to continue attending in-person teaching during the upcoming lockdown. 

Nearly five thousand people have signed a petition calling for the UK government to move all universities to online teaching where possible, ensure no financial penalty for students who wish to give up their accommodation during the pandemic, and provide a financial guarantee for universities against loss of income linked to coronavirus.

The petition also calls for the government to provide further funding for mental health support for both staff and students during the pandemic, and end tuition fees and “move to a stable, long-term, direct funding model for higher education”.

The UCU opposed the reopening of universities at the start of the academic year, and have launched legal action against the government for ignoring the advice of Sage to move all teaching online.

General secretary Jo Grady tweeted: “As we head into a previously avoidable month-long lockdown in England, UCU’s legal challenge is more important than ever.

“The government must explain its decision to ignore its own scientific advisors. This is a matter of public interest; I’m proud our union is pursuing this.”

In an email to staff this morning, Professor Nalin Thakkar, Vice-President for Social Responsibility at the largest university in the country, the University of Manchester, said that the government guidance “make it clear” that the university should remain open.

He outlined the university’s intention to continue with a mix of online and in-person teaching, saying that in-person teaching was already “taking place only where it is essential and in line with the necessary health and safety precautions and agreed risk assessments.”

Students are still being told that they must stay at university until the Christmas break, with further guidelines for safe travel home expected over the next few weeks. 

But even those like Taylor, who feel generally positive about campus remaining open, have concerns. Speaking to Edvoy, she said she was worried about student welfare, and whether this will be considered in how universities lock down.  

“I hope some kind of social spaces are available for students to socialise with our households and we won't be confined to our bedrooms. I currently only have two hours in person which hasn’t been confirmed whether this will change from Thursday. I think it is important that there is some in person teaching as  online learning can be incredibly challenging to stay on top of and I feel there is a lack of support. 

“I am currently living in uni halls and have considered the prospect of going home. However, I think it’s important to stay in order to feel settled and try to get on with uni life. Also due to the high fees I am currently paying for accommodation I feel like I can’t justify paying this whilst living at home for a month. 

“I do find it frustrating that no compensation has been offered in terms of fees as having so little in person teaching makes learning quite overwhelming.  A first year moving to uni is always a somewhat daunting experience and the current situation is exacerbating this process for many as there is a lack of support in online learning and restricted opportunities to socialise.”

The lockdown will also undoubtedly throw universities into doubt over the possibilities of face-to-face teaching in the spring semester. Many institutions had hoped that by semester two they would be able to resume normal on-campus teaching, but will now be forced to consider whether this is realistic. 

However, Boris Johnson has called keeping educational institutions open a “priority”, suggesting that universities will continue to be able to operate both online and in-person for the foreseeable future.

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Nicole Wootton-Cane
Written By
Nicole Wootton-Cane

Nicole lives in Manchester and is a Content Writer and Editor at Edvoy and journalist.

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