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Going to university after the COVID-19 pandemic: What to expect

Will university be different as a result of the pandemic? Here, we help you to prepare for the potential changes you’ll experience.

Uni After Covid

Starting university is an exciting but daunting prospect for new students, who experience a lot of change in their lives over a short period of time. This year may be more daunting than most, as many students will begin their higher education journey in the midst of a pandemic. 

However, students starting university in 2021 are in a significantly better position than students were in 2020, at least in countries such as the UK, US and Australia. COVID-19 vaccination rollouts have been fast-paced and successful in these countries, and the number of vaccinated people will only increase over the next few months.

So what will this mean for university students? Will things return to normal or has the pandemic forever changed how higher education institutions approach learning? In this post, we explore how universities have been affected and give you some tips on how to prepare for September.

How has COVID-19 affected universities so far?

There are two ways we can look at the impact of COVID-19 on universities. Firstly, we can look at how the pandemic has affected university students, and secondly, we can evaluate the impact on the institutions themselves.

For students, the impact has been undeniable. New and current students experienced a halt in traditional teaching methods, instead completing their year almost entirely online. Lectures and seminars were run using Zoom and other video conferencing tools, making in-person teaching feel like a distant memory. 

Regarding university life in general, the experience of new students last year was far from normal. In some instances, students were unable to leave their halls of residence for long periods of time, and COVID-19 spread quickly and effectively among students living together in these communal living spaces.

University institutions have had to quickly adapt to new teaching methods and regulations, but the biggest problem they’re facing is economic loss. The main reason for this is that international student fees are a vital source of income for universities, and many foreign students have not been able to fly overseas to attend university.

Cancellation of A-level exams

Another big consequence of COVID-19 on new university students in the UK has been the cancellation of A-level exams, both this year and the year previous. A big reason for this is that students have had insufficient time in physical classrooms, instead having to study from home.

Remote learning can give some students unfair advantages over others, especially if they have positive working environments and parents willing to help them. Some students will have struggled to study from home, whether this is due to their environment or learning style. Therefore, the decision to cancel exams seems like the appropriate choice.

But what does this mean for university admissions? The UK government announced that GCSE, A-level and BTEC students would receive teacher-assessed grades based on coursework, mock exams, tests, and general performance. Of course, there are flaws with this system too.

One flaw is that teachers can be highly biased. The Journal Of Personality And Individual Differences published a study that suggested teachers are more likely to award high grades to students with agreeable personalities. While this is unsurprising in some respects, it could prove problematic for students who struggle in school, especially if they have behavioural issues.

Online learning as a way for universities to adapt

The most obvious way that universities have adapted is by moving to online teaching and learning methods. While online learning has always been used to a certain degree by universities, for example, via online moodles or recorded lectures, it has never been the norm for all aspects of study. 

This past year, online learning methods have been used for pretty much everything, proving just how innovative and adaptable online education has the potential to be. If you’d like to become a pro at digital learning, you can take our course Learning Online: Communicating and Collaborating to hone your skills. If you want something more specific to university, try our Preparing to Learn Online at University course.

Below, we go into some more detail about the benefits and drawbacks of online learning at university, so you feel more prepared for when term begins.

The benefits of online learning at university

  • Accessible from any place. As long as you have access to a computer or device, which the university should ensure, you can access learning materials from wherever you are.
  • Greater global engagement. It is much easier to communicate with people all around the globe online, giving teachers and students access to different perspectives.
  • Easier to understand. Online learning often gives you the chance to learn at your own pace. If you don’t understand part of a lecture, you can slow it down, pause it to take notes, and basically do everything in a way that suits you.
  • Increased class attendance. Since there is no effort required to get to class, and students don’t have any excuse not to attend, there is often an increased class attendance.
  • Better time management. Learning online gives students the chance to organise themselves and their time, as they’re free from having to rush around to different classes and activities. 

The drawbacks of online learning at university

  • Harder to have discussions. It can be harder to have in-depth discussions online because video calls make it harder for people to talk to one another. Students don’t want to accidentally talk over one another, so sometimes it might feel easier to stay quiet.
  • Lacks social interaction. Going to classes means you are more likely to meet people and make new friends, and this can be much harder in online classes.
  • Cheating is easier. When it comes to assessment, it is much easier to cheat online, as nobody is there to watch and you have easy access to the internet. This can inhibit learning and be unfair to other students, although digital monitoring does try to prevent this.
  • Technical difficulties. Everyone has experienced technical difficulties at some point in their online education. You need a pretty good internet connection to work efficiently, and not all students have this.
  • Certain disciplines require practical work. While subjects in the humanities are fairly well suited to online learning, it can be difficult to rely on online learning in subjects such as biology, where you need to perform practical experiments and examinations.

Will online learning replace traditional learning methods in 2021? 

While online learning is likely to remain commonplace throughout the rest of 2021 and beyond, it is unlikely that it will completely replace traditional learning methods. Despite this, many educators believe that the pandemic has led to more and better online teaching in many countries.

In Pakistan, for example, many teachers and students initially didn’t have the tools for online learning, but the Higher Education Commission has recently been working to standardise online teaching and provide greater opportunities for students. 

Some educators can, however, see the potential for online learning to become much more widely used. Professors Peter Decherney and Caroline Levander suggest that virtual lab work, fieldwork, clinical training and studio art might soon be possible.

They give examples of professors turning their kitchens into laboratories and hosting virtual labs, and faculties sending kits of paints or chemical compounds to students at home.

The rise of blended learning

The more likely outcome is that universities will take more of a blended learning approach to studies, particularly as we navigate through the end of the pandemic. Blended learning is exactly what you would expect – a blend of classroom teaching and online learning methods. The idea is that the students get the best of both worlds: flexibility and accessibility alongside social interactions. 

As Professor Peter Decherney and Professor Caroline Levander point out, it makes a lot more sense for universities to use faculty and student time together for active learning rather than for passive consumption of material such as in lectures.

If you’d like to learn more about blended learning in preparation for university, we have an excellent course on Blended Learning Essentials and another on Making Blended Education Work.

How will COVID-19 affect university admissions in 2021?

Most new students for September will already have received offers from their chosen universities, but there are still some things that are useful to know. Results day this year in the UK is going to be two weeks earlier than originally planned, to allow time for students to appeal their grades. A-level results day will be Tuesday 10 August.

All students will be able to appeal their grade if they so wish, and if you are not happy with any of your results, you’ll have the opportunity to take exams in the autumn term. UCAS clearing, where students are able to apply for university courses with available spaces, will operate as it usually does. This year, it’ll open on Monday 5th July.

If you’re still working on your application, or are thinking about applying to university next year, we have some great courses available that’ll guide you through writing applications, choosing a degree, and entering university.

What about international students?

International students are still able to apply for UK universities, and the borders are open to new and returning students. It may just be worth checking what the guidelines are in your country for travel, and seeing whether your country is on the UK’s exemption list. If you are not exempt, you may need to self-isolate for ten days upon arrival.

Will campus life be back to normal in September?

As we explored previously, it’s likely that universities will operate using blended learning models, and so things won’t be completely the same as before COVID-19. While some UK universities like UCL and Sheffield have made it clear on their website that they’ll be using blended learning, some universities do not mention any changes as a result of the pandemic.

Even if your chosen university doesn’t mention anything about changes in September, it is likely that university life won’t be completely back to normal. While some in-person classes, society events and sports will undoubtedly go ahead, there may still be some digital learning, social distancing and safety restrictions.

Some restrictions and precautions will likely still be in place until every person is vaccinated in the UK, as universities are an easy target for the virus to spread around quickly. 

How to prepare for starting university this year

With September around the corner, you might be wondering what you need to do to prepare for university this year. Luckily for you, we have a range of fantastic resources to help you feel ready. To learn everything you need to know about applying through UCAS and choosing a course, we have a blog post that will take you in detail through all of your options.

If you want to feel more confident academically, our Preparing for University course will teach you to develop your writing, critical thinking, and analytical skills for university study. However, if you want to feel more prepared in a broad sense, our University Preparation Course will help get you ready for success.

Virtual open days 

The best thing you can do to prepare for university is to attend physical or virtual open days. This way, you can learn all about the facilities at your university, the different societies you might want to join, different accommodation options, how to get around campus, and what your new town or city is like. You can find a list of virtual open days and events for UK universities on Prospects.

Final thoughts

We hope this article has helped you to feel more informed about university after COVID-19, and more prepared for September. Whether you start university using a blended learning approach or not, there will undoubtedly be some small changes to university life. 

As universities continue to learn from the pandemic, we can expect to see them adapt even more to suit the changing needs of students by being innovative and creative with the learning opportunities and environments that they provide. Here at FutureLearn, we’re excited to see how higher education will develop and grow over the coming years.

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