Ulster University suspends face-to-face lectures until Christmas

By Robbie Meredith
BBC News NI Education Correspondent

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image captionThe university said it released its plan for the rest of 2020 to give clarity to students and staff

There will be no face-to-face lectures at Ulster University (UU) until at least Christmas due to the coronavirus pandemic.

About 25,000 students will take their courses online instead in the first term of the new academic year.

Some, though, may receive small group teaching on campus in some subjects if it is safe to do so.

Both UU and Queen's University, Belfast (QUB) closed their campuses to all but a few staff and students in March.

The new academic year at UU will begin on the 21 September.

UU's interim vice-chancellor, Prof Paul Bartholomew, said they were informing students and staff of their plans for the rest of 2020 now in order to provide clarity.

"You've got to make the decision to teach online well in advance of knowing that you have to do everything online," he told BBC News NI.

"If you left it until you get perfect clarity there wouldn't be enough time to do the necessary planning.

"All of our teaching that would have been done face to face in a lecture theatre or a classroom setting will be going online, but we will be reserving our campus where we have specialist environments that are important for students to be able to achieve their learning outcomes" he added.

image captionProf Bartholomew spoke to BBC News NI via video call

Prof Bartholomew said practical subjects, which included some study in laboratories, were an example of where students may attend some classes on campus.

"Of course, safety first will be the mantra going forwards," he said.

"If it's not easy or possible to do it at home then we'll consider our campus for that and then we'll do the risk assessment to see if it can be done, and if it can we'll take steps to make that happen."

Prof Bartholomew said the university had considered delaying the new academic year until January 2021 but that would have increased uncertainty for staff and students in the event of a second wave of the pandemic.

He also said that if lockdown and social distancing restrictions eased it may be possible to bring more students in to university buildings.

image captionMost UU students are not expected back in class until late December at the earliest

University accommodation will remain open for those students who need it.

There have been concerns that many students would seek to defer entry to universities in September if they were not operating normally.

Prof Bartholomew said that while the situation for new students, especially, was not ideal he did not expect large numbers to delay entering higher education.

"In this context the alternative options, if you're not going to do a year of university, about what you are going to do aren't quite as rich as they've been in previous years," he said.

"I still think that the university experience and the rich learning experience we'll be able to offer is an attractive one and makes a lot of long-term sense for people pursuing careers."

The university has also told staff who can work from home that they will continue to do so until at least the end of August.

After the summer, UU will attempt a phased, managed return of all staff within public health guidelines.

Meanwhile, Queen's University has said it aims to provide as much face-to-face teaching as possible within the context of social distancing when the new academic year begins.

image captionQueen's University plans a combination of face-to-face and online teaching from September

"We are planning to commence teaching in September, applying the relevant social distancing and hygiene measures to assure the safety of students," a QUB spokesperson said.

"A connected learning approach is anticipated with online delivery complementing face-to-face teaching as necessary to follow the latest public health advice in a campus community environment.

"University accommodation will be available with relevant safety measures applied to ensure students receive an authentic campus experience."

QUB is expected to provide more clarity on its proposed arrangements for September in the coming weeks.

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