Students have begun arriving on quiet university campuses as freshers’ events and lectures have largely moved online amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
One-way systems, face coverings and more outdoor spaces have been introduced by universities to make students feel safe while studying degrees.
In many institutions, seminars are due to be taught in smaller groups in larger spaces – with a range of social distancing measures in place – while freshers’ week activities and lectures are mainly virtual.
As the autumn term begins, university leaders have been urging students not to host or attend large traditional freshers’ week parties due to the ban on social gatherings of more than six people in England.
Instead, some students have been actively encouraged to socialise on campus in Covid-secure spaces.
Professor Tim Quine, deputy vice-chancellor for education at the University of Exeter, told the PA news agency that they hope students will use well-ventilated marquees on campus to socialise instead of heading to the city centre.
He said: “We’re looking at ways that students can use those socially in the evening to try and keep within the rule of six, but also give them opportunities to spend time on campus rather than going into the city because we are aware that our neighbours are nervous about the arrival of students.”
The majority of teaching at Exeter will be online this week – with the number of face-to-face lessons set to increase over the next few weeks as students and staff get used to the new safety measures.
All students are being asked to wear face coverings when inside unless they have a formal exemption – and lecturers do not have to wear a covering if they stay in the same two-metre zone when teaching.
Speaking about Freshers’ Week last week, Prof Quine said: “It has been odd. It has been quiet. In a normal Welcome Week, certainly on the main campus that would have been crowded with people. But with abiding by the rules, it doesn’t have the same buzz at it normally would.”
But there have still been a few incidents where the university has had to “step in” and remind students about the rules amid confusion about permitted social interactions, the deputy vice-chancellor admitted.
He told PA: “A household in a hall of residence is everybody who uses the same kitchen and the same bathroom – and in some halls of residence that’s maybe 12 or 18 students. So they’re effectively three groups of six already in a household.
“So if they’re in the hall of residence, they can mix as a large group, but if they step out of the hall then they have to split out into the groups of six. So I think all you need is, you know, two or three households to accumulate in one place and you’ve got 50 students who are only really in three households.
Prof Quine said estate patrol had to remind students that these large groupings could not be permitted as it could put “in-person teaching at risk.”
When asked what Exeter is doing to try to prevent tensions between local residents and students escalating, he added that estate patrol will probably be “more interventionist” when issues arise.
Last week, the University of Hull said it would be taking a “softly, softly” approach to enforcing the rule of six as it welcomed students at the beginning of an extended freshers’ fortnight.
Students at Hull said they had accepted that their university experience would be different to normal.
Eve Turner, 18, a first-year zoology student from Lincolnshire, said: “Obviously everything’s different because of the pandemic and stuff but it’s a relief to know that everyone’s in the same boat and they have made allowances for how different socialising is in freshers.
“I think it’s obviously more difficult because you can’t just go to freshers’ parties and stuff, things seem a bit more awkward now.”
She added: “Obviously you can’t just have a big party and get to know everyone, you can’t even go drinking in a bar properly, but I think as time goes on it will get easier.”
Across the Cottingham Road campus, measures in place include one-way systems, mandated face mask areas in shops and certain teaching environments, and hand sanitising stations.
Students are expected to socialise at events within their accommodation bubbles of up to eight people.
The traditional “WelcomeFest” event at the university includes a mixture of socially distanced events – including an all-seated welcome party – and virtual events, such as Netflix parties and yoga sessions.
Claire Kimberley, 18, a first-year marine biology student from Lincoln, said she felt “comfortable and safe” with the precautions put in place by the university.
But she added: “I will miss out on some because most of it is online and it’s harder to connect with people on my course.
“And the freshers’ fortnight is going to be a lot different because there’s not as much going on because they’ve got to do those safety measures for Covid.”