Large lectures, which often make up a high proportion of undergraduate students’ learning time, will be watched remotely online, or pre-recorded, with only smaller group learning and tutorials carried out face-to-face at the vast majority of universities.
Some universities say they have not yet finalised their plans, ahead of updated Scottish Government guidance to be confirmed next week when First Minister Nicola Sturgeon makes a statement to parliament about further easing of restrictions - but most told Scotland on Sunday that regardless of national restrictions by the time the new term starts, they will not offer large lectures in person in the coming academic session. None have committed to returning fully to in-person learning from September, even if restrictions allow.
Of Scotland’s 18 physical universities – excluding the Open University, which has always offered courses entirely remotely – 16 said students would continue to be taught partially online from September, regardless of changes to coronavirus restrictions at a national level.
Meanwhile, Heriot-Watt University and Glasgow University said decisions had not yet been taken on whether teaching would include an element of online learning.
However, many institutions will expect students to live on campus, unlike last year, when they were able to stay in their family homes - or elsewhere - while continuing their degrees online.
A document published by the government earlier this month gave outline guidance to colleges and universities for the new academic year - assuming that by the time of the new term, Scotland would be operating beyond level 0 restrictions. It does not specifically ban in-person lectures.
Instead, it instructed institutions to “consider the need, in specific circumstances, for limiting direct face-to-face learning involving very large numbers of students” - however, they were urged to ensure that this is done “without detriment to learning or the overall student experience”. More detailed guidance is expected before the start of the new term.
A general, country-wide move to “beyond level 0” is set to be confirmed by Ms Sturgeon next week and would be in force from 9 August.
A spokesman for Universities Scotland, which represents Scottish universities, said: “Following the publication of Scottish Government guidance, we’re anticipating a general resumption of the in-person experience that is so important to students’ learning and progression such as seminars and tutorials, laboratory practicals, and work experience. Those will be complemented by the wider student sporting and social experiences, in line with the lifting of restrictions across society.
"Students may see some differences at the start of this academic year, for instance we’re not envisaging the immediate resumption of large lectures, and of course students have always had different university experiences based on what and where they are studying.”
Student union NUS Scotland said that students were hoping for “a bit more normality” in the new term. Earlier this week, higher education minister Jamie Hepburn confirmed vaccination clinics would be set up at universities. The institutions are working with health boards to create drop-in clinics at points around campuses where students are most likely to congregate.
NUS Scotland President Matt Crilly said: “Students are hoping for a bit more normality next year. We need the chance to meet our classmates and teachers, after a year of learning alone in bedrooms. Being a student is more than just the raw consumption of knowledge, it’s a social and communal experience.
“However, the virus hasn’t gone away. It’s understandable that large lectures are unlikely, but we hope students will have the option to access much more of an in-person experience. That said, some students may be shielding, self-isolating or feel unsafe coming to campus, and so they should be able to access learning remotely.”
He added that vaccinations should be available to students who start university before they are 18.
He said: “It would also be unforgivable if lessons from last year aren’t enacted to protect students in halls from finding themselves trapped, surrounded by the virus.”
The University of Edinburgh said it would continue to hold large lectures virtually and planned to “deliver a mix of in-person and digital teaching” for the new academic year.
It added: “We expect students to be with us in Edinburgh to study. However, if your home country does not permit you to travel to the UK, you can apply for exceptional permission to study off campus.”
A spokesperson for Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen said that it was working to a one-metre social distancing requirement on campus.
He said: “We absolutely recognise the importance of face-to-face contact for our students, from both a learning and a wellbeing perspective. While there will be an increase in on-campus teaching delivery in terms of seminars, tutorials, workshops, lab and practical classes, there will be no large lectures.”
He added: “We are hopeful that our students will enjoy an experience much closer to that which they would expect from university when semester starts in September.”
A spokesman for the University of Abertay in Dundee said that it planned to offer more time on campus for teaching, study and social events than was possible last academic year, but that even if restrictions are lifted, it would offer a “blended approach” in the coming year.
He said: “Timetabling is still in progress so it is too early to give the exact mix, and this will also vary per programme.”
A spokesman for the University of St Andrews said: “The vast majority of our classes, tutorials, and seminars will take place in-person. Our large lectures (35 people and over), however, will remain mostly online for first semester and all will be recorded. The option to study entirely online will continue to be available to all who want it.”
A spokesman for Stirling University said: “Subject to the virus remaining under control and in line with the latest public health guidance, we are planning to deliver as much face-to-face teaching as possible from September 2021 - including offering regular in-person opportunities for all students and smaller in-person group teaching, skills and laboratory sessions on campus. Some blended teaching will also be delivered across the semester, with larger lectures - involving groups of more than 50 people - and the majority of assessments remaining online.”
A UWS spokesperson said: “We expect that all students will be in regular attendance on campus, and are planning our campus operations on the basis of all students being able to attend as required.
“In addition, teaching activities that are simply the transmission of information will be available online, in line with our flexible approach to learning and teaching. At all times we will comply with prevailing Government guidance.”
Glasgow School of Art said it plans to have increased studio and workshop access with social distancing requirements in place and face-to-face teaching for small groups, with lectures and activities for larger groups likely to be online, while Scotland’s Rural College said it was likely the majority of courses will have “between 20 to 33 per cent of online content”.
The University of the Highlands and Islands said it would continue to offer the “blended approach” of in-person and virtual teaching it has offered for the past 20 years.
The University of Glasgow said it was still formalising its plans, however, one new student said she had been told that her course was likely to be taught half online and half in person.
Former Peebles High School pupil Olivia Easton, 17, from the Borders, is due to start her degree in history and politics at the University of Glasgow in September.
She said: “I was sent an email, which was a bit vague and they said it depends on class sizes, but that it was likely to be 50-50 in person and online. I would definitely prefer it to all be in person. It’s easier for students in their third and fourth years who’ve had in person lectures before, but when you’re just starting at university, having them online is strange.
"Big lecture halls are really part of the whole university experience. It should be a priority – not just for the universities, but for the government – to get that in place. By then, it is likely we’ll be able to go to nightclubs, but not be in a lecture hall together, it doesn’t make sense.
"I feel good about starting university, I think it is going to be a much more normal university experience than last year – if I had been due to go then, I think I would have postponed it – but some things are still going to be different. I think that we’re not going to be able to mix as much at freshers’ week activities as usual. I’m not too worried about catching the virus – I should have had the vaccine by the time I go – but I think there’s a risk of repeatedly having to self isolate. I know of people last year who had to self isolate, then got out for a few days, then had to self isolate again.”