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Confusion over whether students will return to universities in Autumn

Confusion has been circling over whether university students will be able to return to campuses in the Autumn term.

Most universities in the UK suspended all face-to-face teaching in March due to the Coronavirus pandemic. The suspension was also followed by the cancellation of exams for many students, while some students had to take online forms of assessment. Online learning has been made available for students by most institutions since the start of the pandemic, however, the extent and quality of such learning and resources have varied.

Cambridge University has said that lectures will only be held online for the academic year beginning in September because of the Coronavirus. In a statement, the university said;

"Given that it is likely that social distancing will continue to be required, the university has decided there will be no face-to-face lectures during the next academic year.

The university said that it would review the decision should there be official changes to advice on the Coronavirus. 

The statement followed a move by the University of Manchester, which has said its lectures will only be online, rather than face-to-face, for the Autumn term. 

The coverage and spreading of the statements has though led to confusion, with some students assuming that they will be unable to return to university campuses and accommodation in the Autumn. The specifics of what will be possible in September and October, of course, remain unknown with the response to the Coronavirus a fast-moving situation.

However, both Cambridge University and Manchester University have said that the hosting of physical smaller teaching groups which conform to social distancing requirements could be possible. On accommodation, Manchester University has said: "We very much hope to be able to welcome students to move into their University accommodation ahead of the start of the academic year but this is subject to UK government guidance and a full University risk assessment."

If social distancing remains a requirement in the Autumn, it seems likely that many universities may take a blended learning approach. For example, lectures may be live-streamed online, and seminars and group work may take place in face-to-face settings, though with the enforcement of social distancing requirements.

Under the UK government's COVID Alerts System, England is currently in stage 4, meaning that strict social distancing is required. The government has said we are gradually moving into level 3, where there is a gradual relaxing of restrictions and social distancing measures. When the UK reaches level 2 of the system, minimal or no social distancing will be required, however, the government has not indicated a potential date for when this may be reached.

Many believe though that social distancing may be required until a vaccine is made available for COVID-19.

Statements from more universities are expected over the coming weeks in regards to how teaching will take place in the Autumn term, with the university watchdog saying earlier this week that students applying for university places in England must be told with "absolute clarity" how courses will be taught before they make their choices for next term.

It has been confirmed that universities can charge full fees even if courses are taught online. Fees for courses at UK universities can be as much as £9,250 a year, or even higher for international students. If applicants do not feel they would be getting value for money or an appropriate 'campus experience', they may defer their admission until the following academic year.

The delivery of Higher Education is just one area of large uncertainty amid the Coronavirus pandemic, which has so far resulted in more than 35,000 deaths in the UK.