student studying
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University students may have to live in halls of residence with others on their course and keep within physically distanced social bubbles when campuses reopen in September.

Under plans being discussed at a number of universities, students would mix only with others on certain courses and year groups to minimise the infection risk from coronavirus. On campus, students and staff would move around in a one-way system.

Liz Barnes, the vice-chancellor of Staffordshire University, said the bubbles would allow students to access campus facilities while restricting the number of people they interact with. "It applies wherever they are on a campus," she said.

University leaders are anxious to assure prospective students that they will not receive an inferior education, amid fears of a potential £760m shortfall in funding if an estimated one in five students defer over coronavirus uncertainty.

Speaking at a briefing outlining Universities UK's guidelines for exiting lockdown, its chair, Julia Buckingham, the vice-chancellor of Brunel University, said universities would not shift wholly online but planned to offer students a "blended" education, combining some online lectures with smaller face-to-face tutorials. At her university, the proportion of online learning will vary in line with government guidance on physical distancing.

"Students want to have a university experience that is as close as possible to the one they were expecting when they filled their application forms in the autumn," she said. "We will deliver in person, teaching and learning wherever possible, accompanied by online lectures and digitally based materials when required."

Buckingham said the significant investment that universities were funnelling into online learning, campus overhauls and improved mental health support meant that most students should not expect to receive refunds if they are unhappy with their experience.

She said her university would introduce an optional January start date for domestic students on some larger postgraduate and undergraduate programmes, and for all international students who are unable to travel in September.

A University and College Union poll of 516 university applicants suggested that nearly three-quarters would prefer the academic year to start later to enable them to receive more face-to-face teaching and fewer online lessons.

Universities are also planning to replace the annual freshers' weeks, usually held in September and October, with virtual events to enable students to meet each other and sign up to extracurricular activities.

Shearer West, the vice-chancellor of Nottingham University, said that if physical distancing rules allowed, the university would look to hold a reduced version of its freshers' fair.

The university leaders added that exams were likely to be held online, replicating the end of the current academic year, although students who lack access to technology or a broadband connection would have the opportunity to be assessed in person.

Michelle Donelan, the universities minister, said: "I know this has been a very difficult and uncertain time for students. I am pleased universities are making decisions and planning now for how courses might be adapted should restrictions be in place come autumn, providing much needed clarity to students."

Claire Sosienski Smith, the vice-president of the National Union of Students, said: "We welcome measures that prioritise students' safety. It is important institutions take measures to do this in light of the ever changing pandemic. Students need clarity as to what they can expect from the next academic year in order for them to make informed choices."