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QAA publishes guidelines for the socially distanced campus

The Quality Assurance Agency has published guidelines to help universities that are re-opening their campuses in the Autumn maintain standards while protecting students and staff.

Universities and colleges in the UK are remodelling their curriculum delivery to enable a blend of virtual and on-site learning from autumn 2020, according to the report Preserving Quality and Standards through a time of rapid change: UK Higher Education in 2020-21.

In the absence of any certainty about the public health context in September, universities and colleges are making plans and contingencies which allow on-site teaching to take place, while complying with distancing measures, noting that these may vary over time and in different parts of the UK.

The QAA guidance has been produced following extensive interviews and discussions with university and college leaders and quality assurance teams to understand evolving plans at higher education providers across the UK. It sets out four principles that providers can use to help their planning:

• any move to on-site activity is safe and secure for staff and students
• degree awarding bodies maintain quality and standards in the move to flexible provision
• providers engage with students and staff in planning changes to delivery and assessment of teaching and learning
• providers' planning scenarios are flexible and responsive to students' need

Commenting on plans for the next academic year, Douglas Blackstock, QAA's Chief Executive, said: "Despite reports that all on-campus teaching will be cancelled next year, we've found quite the opposite. Universities and colleges are working to design plans which ensure that students can build learning communities and access as much on-site learning as possible, flexibly and safely.

"Mass lectures might take place virtually, but they're just one part of the learning experience in UK higher education. Students can expect to see academic staff in person and access high-quality facilities next year, as public health guidance permits, even if it isn't in a lecture theatre."

Examples of plans for next year include:

• Changes to timetabling and the structure of the working day to ensure that facilities such as seminar rooms, labs, libraries and performance spaces can be used with students and staff appropriately distanced.
• Allowing students to choose to access on-site teaching through their own choice of virtual or physical learning in real time, or developing online modules that can be accessed at any time, from any place, unlocking access to higher education for students who may be unable or unwilling to return to campus. Some providers plan to run these in parallel, allowing students to move between them as needed.
• Learning from countries already allowing students back on campus to consider how to keep students safe on the university or college estate

However, the guidance also acknowledges that not all aspects of student life can be replicated virtually, with work placements and social events more reliant on lockdown easing. Higher education providers should also be aware of digital poverty, and ensure that virtual teaching and assessments do not deprive some students access to learning.

Mr Blackstock said: "We are seeing a shift from the emergency response to the global COVID-19 pandemic into thinking about innovation in the delivery of higher education to support student-centred learning.

"Digital delivery can provide real benefits through a new way of looking at how students can access their learning in a way that suits their individual needs and is flexible enough to change as these needs change. We may yet see some of the new models of teaching and assessment staying with us for some time."