Cambridge university is planning to cancel all face-to-face lectures for the entire 2020-21 academic year, in the most sweeping measure so far taken by a British higher education institution in response to coronavirus. In a statement on Tuesday night, it 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.
Lectures will continue to be made available online.” The move will be a shock to many returning and new students drawn to the university with the prospect of in-person teaching in the coming months. Pressure is mounting on other institutions to announce how they plan to teach, ahead of a delayed deadline next month by when British school leavers are required to decide where they intend to study.
Many are struggling to maintain student numbers and adapt to online teaching. Nicola Dandridge, head of the Office for Students, the university regulator, told MPs on Tuesday that universities should not provide misleading promises on a “campus experience” to students, who would be allowed to change their minds if those plans changed.
Manchester university has already announced a switch to online learning for the autumn academic term, and many other institutions have been considering online or “hybrid” options, but most are still working on their plans for the coming months. In the US, the California State university system, which teaches nearly 500,000 students, this week became the largest of a number of institutions announcing that all its courses would be taught online for the autumn semester this year.
Cambridge’s announcement goes much further as it braces itself for a full academic year of online teaching across its faculties and courses. It is still holding in reserve the option of in-person teaching in smaller sessions such as seminars and supervisions, which comprise a significant part of its tuition.
It said that the decision, first reported in the student newspaper Varsity, “has been taken now to facilitate planning, but as ever, will be reviewed should there be changes to official advice on coronavirus”.
Sir Anthony Seldon, outgoing vice-chancellor at the private University of Buckingham, which offers two-year degrees and options of academic years beginning in September and January, said applications for its January 2021 intake had increased three-fold on the same period last year. “January starts are ideal, so much of the way forward for universities will be to offer that,” he said. “The three-year full-time degree is broken. It was run in the interest of the producers not the consumers.”
In an initial move last week, Prof Stephen Toope, Cambridge’s vice-chancellor, announced that its Institute of Continuing Education for adults would offer all its 2020-21 undergraduate teaching online, with no residential requirement. “These will be the first Cambridge awards ever conferred without the requirement for a period of residency,” he said.