University students face delays starting new academic year

Lectures set to take place on online with face-to-face tutorials and practicals

University of Limerick is one of a number of universities due to begin the new academic year on September 28th, three weeks later than normal. Photograph: Liam Burke/Press 22

University of Limerick is one of a number of universities due to begin the new academic year on September 28th, three weeks later than normal. Photograph: Liam Burke/Press 22

 

Tens of thousands of university students are set to start the new academic year later than normal this year with most lectures continuing to take place online due to the Covid-19 threat.

Many colleges are also considering suspending Erasmus programmes due to travel restrictions, which typically see thousands of students study abroad at other higher education institutions in the European Union.

University of Limerick and NUI Galway have confirmed that the new academic year will begin for returning students on September 28th, three weeks later than normal.

Senior academics in other universities including Trinity College Dublin have confirmed that they are examining similar dates but have not yet signed off on details for the coming year.

First year students, meanwhile, are scheduled to begin in most universities on November 2nd due to the delayed Leaving Cert.

A contingency plan of allowing first years to start as late as January has been discussed in case of further delays to the Leaving Cert, according to sources.

However, there is a recognition that this would pose major problems and involve an academic year with little or no break for students.

Online lectures

Disruption posed by the coronavirus pandemic and social distancing rules, meanwhile, mean that most institutions will be forced to continue to hold a majority of lectures online from September on.

However, colleges are also finalising details for “blended” delivery of programmes to allow students to spend at least some time on campus for face-to-face laboratory classes, tutorials or seminars.

The viability of Erasmus programmes is also being reviewed and some colleges are exploring online alternatives.

UL, for example, told students on Thursday that it has decided to suspend its Erasmus and non-EU exchange mobility programme for the autumn due to travel restrictions.

It says “alternative programmes” will be put in place for those UL students who had been scheduled to study abroad for their autumn semester.

“We realise that this is very disappointing for students, but at present it is the only safe option,” UL’s critical operations team and executive committee told students.

The requirements for social distancing pose a particular dilemma for science, engineering and medical courses which require extensive access to laboratories or tutorials, according to academics. The requirement for clinical placements in the case of medicine is also a challenge.

“It’s very tricky to deliver because there is the added complication of providing a safe environment for students in hospitals,” said one senior academic.

“We’re hoping the intense acute phase of the pandemic will have quietened enough so they can resume training students safely.”

NUI Galway’s president Prof Ciarán Ó hÓgartaigh has confirmed to students that the start date for returning students has been postponed until September 28th due to travel disruptions and the need to prepare for online and blended learning.

He said the college was aware that this decision “may need to change in the light of public health advice” and added that “some students and staff, to protect their own health and that of those around them, may not be able to access campus”.

All teaching in third level institutions has been taking place online since mid-March, when the Government instructed colleges to close their doors.