Starting University in the Time of Covid-19

Sending your child to university for the first time is a huge milestone for every parent. For expatriates, the challenge is often two-fold... Saying farewell and, very often, watching your teenager depart for an adventure overseas. This year, families of Year 13 graduates have an extra dimension of complexity to their university planning: Covid-19.
This article is part of an editorial series on Covid-19
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This article is part of an editorial series on Covid-19

So far in our special series on transitions in education during the time of Covid, we have looked at children starting school for the first time, the move to secondary from primary school and from secondary to sixth form. All have their unique challenges, but none other comes with the added dimension of your child leaving home (and during a pandemic nonetheless)! Making the move to university this year will undoubtedly come with a huge mixture of nerves, excitement and trepidation.

With a recent survey by UK based charity The Sutton Trust indicating that 1 in 5 students are unsure about starting university this year and 72% thinking that “calculated grades” will be less fair than in previous years, there is certainly much more to think about for school leavers.

In the course of putting this article together, we spoke to a number of universities and schools, but began with Horizon International School, The British International School of Abu Dhabi and Kent College Dubai to understand how teachers and school leaders are getting behind their Year 13 students, even during this period of school closures. What was clear was that despite this being a time where final year students would typically have ‘left’ school for study leave and exams, schools have acknowledged the need to continue to support and engage these students until the very end of term.

At Horizon International School, Head of Post 16, Matthew Whittaker is supporting his students to use this time wisely. “We are currently working with our Year-13 cohort to support the jump into adulthood” he said.

“At university you don’t get classes scheduled in every single gap of your timetable. You won’t have lectures every day, so setting a routine instead of lying in bed is very worthwhile! We want to ensure our students successfully transition to university by encouraging them think about their well-being. Working remotely, through distance learning is unfamiliar for our students and we have often found that they are overworking. When students go to university they will have to tell themselves to take a break, so setting an alarm to rest and creating dedicated break times will make life a lot more bearable”.

At Kent College Dubai, the secondary team have used this period to engage their Year 13 students with a series of university preparation courses. From budgeting to astrophysics, academic writing to data analysis as well as courses on mental and physical well-being – the students have a host of options open to them. As Deputy Head of Senior School, Ben Parkes told us,

“We invited all our Year 13 pupils to enrol on a series of short courses that would help equip them for university, explore a variety of curricula and pursue personal interests. The overall goal is to use this unexpected time to sharpen the skills pupils need to take the next step in their academic careers”.

Certainly, we imagine that parents will appreciate the efforts that schools have gone to in order to ensure their older teens are usefully engaged during this time. At sister schools The British International School of Abu Dhabi (BISAD) and Nord Anglia International School Dubai (NASD), teachers have come together to create a brand new ‘Pre-University’ course. Chris Lowe, Head of Secondary at BISAD felt that the idea that Year 13 students would have no formal learning between March and September was ‘unacceptable’. He went on to say that,

“Whilst these students will not be sitting any exams this summer, we did not want them to leave our care without being as well prepared for university life as possible. Our course has provided a great opportunity for students in two cities to collaborate and for teachers to revisit some of their own university experiences!”

What will University life look like in September 2020?

While schools here in the UAE are doing all they can to ensure as smooth a transition as possible, the wider world of course still awaits better understanding of how the Covid19 pandemic will impact university life. Right around the world, from the University of Hong Kong to the Frankfurt School of Finance and Management to John Hopkins University in the USA, university life has moved to an entirely remote way of working.

Some, like the University of Cambridge in the UK have already announced that there will be no ‘in person’’ lectures in the academic year 2020-21. Its recent statement read;

“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 in order to facilitate planning, but as ever, will be reviewed should there be changes to official advice on coronavirus”.

Most other universities have yet to announce their plans.

What is more certain than where and how classes will be delivered is that students and their families are unlikely to get a respite on university fees. As the British government universities minister, Michelle Donelan, has said:

“We don’t believe students will be entitled to reimbursement if the quality is there”.

Quite how ‘quality’ will be judged, has yet to be clarified.  Clearly, as for so many aspects of life in 2020, many question marks remain.

The Virtual Campus - Connecting in a Socially Distanced Time

Students at the University of East Anglia (UEA) have created a novel way to make connections and make new students welcome during lockdown. First year student Sophie Johnston and friends made a detailed search of local town planning records in order to accurately recreate the university campus on the video game Minecraft.  The concept has proven popular with existing and prospective students alike.  Speaking to, Miss Johnston had this to say;

"Our aim was to appeal to current students of UEA who were missing the campus, but we've gotten quite a bit more traffic recently.  Our server is open to everyone, UEA student or not. Some of the players that have logged on have been year 13 students who are planning to go to UEA this September. As most of our player base is existing UEA students, they like to ask questions about uni life that we're all more than happy to answer". 

CLICK HERE to begin exploring the UEA's Minecraft campus.

To Defer or not to Defer?

It’s entirely understandable that many students are contemplating deferring [‘deferring’ is the term used for pushing back a students’ entry to university, most often for one year] their university place amidst so much confusion and uncertainty. However, deferring a place once an application has already been made is not quite as simple as a planned deferment, which can be done at the time of submitting the original application.

Students are advised to contact each individual institution to discuss deferring and to have valid reasons for their decision. They should also note that there is no guarantee that that their request will be accepted. At, we would advise students contemplating deferring their place to have a solid plan as to how they will use the next ‘extra’ year with purpose and meaning.

The Local Options

Staying in the UAE for higher education is an increasingly popular option, especially for those who have family rooted in the country. We spoke to Ben Bailey, Director of Campus Operations at the University of Birmingham Dubai to find out how local higher education institutions are planning to support their students come September 2020.

“Understandably, many students have hesitations about travelling overseas for study at the moment, and more students are thinking about staying in the UAE, at least for the coming year. The UAE’s progress in tackling COVID-19 means that the UAE feels like a very safe and positive place to study. While social distancing measures continue, it is likely that some element of online provision will be required alongside any campus delivery, and we are therefore investing further in ensuring the quality of our online provision".

Mr Bailey’s colleague, Chris Taylor, Head of Recruitment and Marketing at the University of Birmingham Dubai added that

“Our applications have increased over the last few weeks. It has always been our priority to ensure students in the Middle East know they have a quality option here in Dubai, and they don’t need to travel abroad to get the same standard of education”.

Certainly, the options for studying in the UAE are become broader and the infrastructure for local students is improving. All being well, September 2020 will see the opening of The Myriad Dubai, a student housing community which will eventually accommodate up to 2200 students and offer a wide variety of sporting facilities as well as restaurants, cafes, gaming rooms, outdoor amphitheatre with cinema and shopping options. The Myriad Dubai is located in Academic City where many Dubai universities have their home.

We’d love to know what you, or your teen, is planning for September 2020. Are they holding fast to their pre-pandemic decisions, or making new plans? Drop us a note on our facebook page, or below, to share in the conversation.

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