Universities could remain shut in autumn amid coronavirus outbreak

7 April 2020, 18:29

File photo: Universities could remain closed in the autumn
File photo: Universities could remain closed in the autumn. Picture: Getty

By Ewan Somerville

Universities could remain shut in the autumn amid the coronavirus outbreak, a Government minister has suggested.

Michelle Donelan, the universities minister, said she “can’t foresee” the next academic year running “like clockwork” as the coronavirus pandemic continues to grip the globe.

All institutions in the UK are currently shut to students until further notice, with classes and summer exams moved online, graduations postponed and emergency measures in place to protect grades.

They are braced to take a huge financial hit this autumn, with international students - who prove a lifeline, paying up to £20,000 a year fees - expected to stay away.

But experts have warned of a further financial hit if sixth formers turn down places due to campuses remaining closed.

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Posted by UCAS on Friday, 3 April 2020

Asked on a Facebook live-stream on Tuesday with Ucas, the admissions body, whether universities would reopen for their normal term dates in September, Ms Donelan could issue no guarantees.

“We don't even know when lockdown will potentially end, so it would be very premature and actually irresponsible of me to say ‘right on this date they are definitely going to be open as per normal’,” she said.

“Obviously our goal is to try and ensure that that happens, but what we’re doing is making sure that universities are open in some format, be that online learning or utilising technology to continue providing that tuition as per normal and that academic year can be honoured.”

Universities have already been ordered to stop making unconditional offers to sixth formers after their A-level exams were cancelled, as less-prestigious institutions fear they could lose key revenue streams, especially from lucrative international students.

Ms Donelan said the UK is “definitely open” to international students and was "confident" institutions will deliver face-to-face teaching online if their countries remain in lockdown.

“Hopefully we’ll be all on track and the next academic year will happen like clockwork and it will be easy and simple, but we can’t foresee that necessarily,” she said.

Vice-chancellors have already confirmed that they are drawing up plans to teach first-year students online in the autumn amid expectations that social distancing measures could still be in place.

But experts have warned this may push some UK-based students to defer the year, put off by the loss of a freshers’ week or the prospect of struggling to adjust to advanced study through a computer screen, creating further financial woes for institutions.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute think tank, said: “Some universities will start falling over. Universities will play a valuable part in pulling us out of the recession that is coming, so it is more important than ever that they survive.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Education told LBC News: "We are committed to supporting our world-class higher education institutions, and will continue working closely with the sector to manage the impact of coronavirus."

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