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University of Cambridge shifts lectures online for 2020/2021 academic year

The University of Cambridge has an enduring position at the heart of the global education system
The University of Cambridge has an enduring position at the heart of the global education system

The University of Cambridge has shifted its lecture programme online for the 2020-2021 academic year, leaving a possible small group teaching to continue using social distancing processes.

The announcement has huge implications for Cambridge’s education, economic, tourist and cultural futures.

Online teaching began in March in response to the coronavirus pandemic. This summer’s examinations are being carried out virtually. All educational establishments are reviewing their processes both for the remainder of this term and for the autumn intake.

The University told the Cambridge Independent: “The University is constantly adapting to changing advice as it emerges during this pandemic. 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 and it may be possible to host smaller teaching groups in person, as long as this conforms to social distancing requirements. This decision has been taken now to facilitate planning, but as ever, will be reviewed should there be changes to official advice on coronavirus.”

The shift to online lectures for the whole academic year is a clear signal that educational methods in the UK have to adapt. There are two immediate threats: one is viral, and the second is the UK’s tardy response to the pandemic which means the country is likely to remain in some form of lockdown for many more months - a situation the University of Cambridge has discussed in public when it set out a ‘global gloom’ analysis with four different response scenarios.

In a statement this afternoon (May 20), Professor Graham Virgo, senior pro-vice-chancellor (education), said: “The university and the colleges will welcome as many students as possible to Cambridge for the start of the next academic year, guided always by advice from Public Health England. We are committed to continuing to deliver high quality education to all our students and to delivering a rich student experience, while ensuring that we respond effectively to the challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Small group teaching – supervisions, seminars or individual tuition – is at the heart of our educational provision and will continue in person as much as possible. Given the likely need for continued social distancing, we have decided to suspend mass lectures in person for the next academic year. Lectures will be available online; this system is already in place in some University Departments. Lectures are only one part of the rich education that Cambridge offers and freeing space in lecture halls will allow us to concentrate on delivering small group teaching, lab work and practicals.

“Colleges are planning to offer a wide range of activities, and will work hard to build up community life, even in the midst of social distancing.

“There remains a great deal of uncertainty about the likely course of the pandemic and its impact on universities. I regret that partial reporting of only one aspect of our plans may have compounded this uncertainty. We will keep our plans under regular review. Our objective is to restore the full teaching programme as soon as possible. If we are able to do this sooner than currently anticipated, we will.”

Lectures are very much not all the teaching that Cambridge carries out; in fact, it is more reliant on small group teaching and supervisions than many other universities.

Laura Rettie at Cirencester-based Studee said: “Being the first university to confirm they’re taking face-to-face lectures online for potentially a whole academic year is a bold decision from the University of Cambridge, which could set a trend for other universities.

“It’s unclear whether or not students will continue to have to pay full whack for their tuition fees - although this isn't the fault of the university - neither it is the fault of students and I’d hope any university choosing to go down this route finds some way of compensating them. This won’t have been an easy decision to make and it will be very interesting to see who else now follows suit.”

On Monday Nicola Dandridge, chief executive at the Office for Students, told a virtual education select committee students should be told what kind of experience they will receive in advance of accepting offers for a university placement this autumn.

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