LONDON – Cambridge has become the first university in Britain to cancel all face-to-face lectures for the 2020-21 academic year because of the coronavirus pandemic, after 800 years of welcoming students to its cloisters, quadrangles and classrooms.
It likely won’t be the last, as the virus threatens the foundations of the traditional student experience, and the finances of universities around the world.
Cambridge said late Tuesday that all lectures will be held virtually and streamed online until summer 2021. It said it may be possible to hold tutorials and teach in small groups when the new academic year starts in October, as long as social distancing rules can be followed.
The university, which has about 12,000 undergraduate students, said in a statement that “the decision has been taken now to facilitate planning, but, as ever, will be reviewed should there be changes to official advice on coronavirus.”
The pandemic has already upended student life. Cambridge sent students home and moved all its teaching online in March as the U.K. went into lockdown, and exams are being held remotely.
In Britain and abroad, graduation ceremonies and spring balls have been scrapped, and universities are grappling with how, or whether, to resume classes.
The French government hopes to reopen universities in September, but has asked the colleges to continue to offer courses online.
California State University announced last week that it will hold a virtual fall semester and keep classrooms closed, becoming the first major U.S. college to cancel lectures for the fall.
Some smaller U.S. schools have announced similar plans, and many of the country’s most prestigious universities are undecided. Princeton says it is working on the assumption that classes will remain online this fall, but it won’t have a formal decision until early July.
Dozens more American universities, however, say they plan to reopen their campuses in the fall, and some are planning a partial reopening of research labs this month.
British universities are warning they will face a financial crisis if students decide they don’t want to pay tuition fees – currently $11,300 a year in England – for a college experience shorn of in-person teaching, extra-curricular clubs and socializing. Some students who were due to start in the fall are likely to defer for a year in hope that things get back to normal by then.
Nicola Dandridge, who heads U.K. higher education regulator the Office for Students, said this week that universities needed to come clean about what kind of experience students could expect before June, when school graduates decide whether to take up college places for the autumn term.
“What we don’t want to see are promises that it’s all going to be back to usual – an on-campus experience – when it turns out that’s not the case,” she told Parliament’s education committee.
Analysis by consulting firm London Economics estimated that as many as 120,000 students in Britain could delay going to university if classes remain online, causing a “severe” financial hit to academic institutions.
Lockdowns and travel restrictions imposed because of the pandemic have also cut off the flow of international students, who pay higher fees and form a major source of income for U.K. universities.
For now, British universities are preparing for students to return in the fall. Some say they will delay the start of term by a few weeks, and others are still working out how to continue teaching in the age of COVID-19.
The University of Manchester said it has moved all lectures online for the fall term, but still expects students to move into its halls of residence.
Edinburgh University said it would adopt a “hybrid model” rather than going fully virtual.
“Having hundreds of students packed into lecture theaters close together probably isn’t going to be safe or possible,” vice chancellor Peter Mathieson told the BBC on Wednesday. “But we intend to provide small-group teaching and all the other campus experiences that distinguish us.”
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