How will students be learning from September?

As students return to university, we look at what institutional websites are telling students about how they will be learning in the next year. Having already spoken with several institutions, the expectation was a return to campus-based learning. The reality turns out to be not so simple.

This year we want to focus on the longer-term learning and teaching transformation opportunities emerging from the shift towards more hybrid or blended learning driven by the pandemic. So this quick study is part of getting a base line for institutions and we will follow-up with more in-depth explorations.


We used a team swarming approach, in this case 14 people gathering information from websites over an afternoon (Wed 15 September 2021) and collating the results. The aim was to extract the key messages to students and capture any interesting points.


We were able to find information on University websites, with 2-3 exceptions, aimed at students returning in September.  Almost all universities are encouraging students back to campus in September, providing them with access to learning and social facilities. The differences are whether attendance at university is required or optional, and how much of the learning will be face to face and how much online.

We looked at 180 university websites, based on the list of higher education institutions in the Jisc subscription banding. Key points noted from each site were mapped using an online white board application. This was used to create the categories below and map individual institutions. These were collated in three categories, although there was a lot of variation within them and some overlap. I only included institutions in the hybrid or blended category if they talked about a specific model of learning. Rather than just saying mostly face to face with some online/technology supported learning.

Pie chart showing 3 categories about what institutiosn are telling students

1. On-campus learning expected support by technology

The majority of universities (62%) are expecting a full return to a campus-based learning experience for students. The target split of face to face activity to online, where specified was 70:30 or 80:20. While others gave details by course or department, which we didn’t have time to analyse.

Some institutions are using a tier system setting out the risk level and campus facilities that will be open.  The have reached the level where face to face teaching will be prioritised. For example the message from Writtle University College is “Full campus return under Covid-19 risk assessment”,

Writtle Univesity College Tier 5 covid risk

Institutions are still planning to have some elements of learning supported by technology and plans for online learning to resume if covid restrictions escalate.

Some institutions have retained elements of online learning based on student feedback for example: “….students have reported positive aspects of having access to online resources and support. We don’t want to lose these positives and will build them into the way we teach next year.” University of Wolverhampton, Road to reopening FAQs 

Many universities that teach practical or professional courses, e.g., in the health sector or creative arts, have already embraced face to face learning as it is an essential part of the learning experience. The advice on their websites was more around risk, covid testing, wearing masks and social distancing.


2. Hybrid or blended model of learning

Most of the 53 universities (29%) in this category expect a return to on-campus learning but are explicitly continuing a model of hybrid or blended learning. They differ from the first category in having a defined model rather than just planning to support learning with technology. For some such as Northampton University and Falmouth University it was a return to a blended learning model that was already in place before the pandemic.

These institutions were already innovating around a blended learning model. They will also have progressed furthest with the use of digital before the pandemic and have continued to innovate over the past 18 months.

Other models seems to have emerged as a response to the pandemic, for example St Andrews University offering “Dual-mode teaching” and the University of East London’s “Dual Delivery 2.0”.

3. Transitional approach

The universities in this category are taking a more cautious approach and/or not making campus attendance a requirement.

Anglia Ruskin University are planning a transition over the first trimester and students may “choose to study fully online, you’ll join the same learning community and receive the same or similar content as our face-to-face teaching

Others say they will continue to offer online learning to any that need it, provided it is possible within their course, for the first part of the year.

Most universities made some mention of trying to meet students’ needs if attendance was not possible due to health or care responsibilities or for overseas students.

Further observations

A BBC survey of 47 universities suggested just 13 would be offering mostly face to face tuition and the rest a blended approach. Our evidence suggests that most institutions plan face to face learning supported by technology, primarily for large lectures and access to digital resource.

Large lectures and recorded lectures

Just over 30 universities said they plan to deliver large lectures online to meet social distancing. Institutions also plan to provide recordings of lectures for students. Lecture capture technology is now a core service. Some institutions have set a cap for large lectures at 30 students and others at 50 students to meet requirements for social distancing, room capacity and student numbers. What is not clear yet is whether this will continue beyond the need to socially distance or institutions will return to large lectures over time.

Small groups, seminars, practical sessions, and laboratories

There was an emphasis by several universities to make all small group or practical sessions in person activities. Some have removed the need for social distancing and wearing of masks, whereas others have said it is dependent on the room setting, ventilation etc.

Online Tutorials

Four universities stated that personal tutorials would remain online or would be available at the request of students. I had already heard from some tutors that online tutorials had been popular with students and staff. I will explore this further to see if tutors will continue to offer support to learners online.

What next

We will capture more of the strategic changes in learning and teaching practice that are being retained post pandemic. If you have any examples or comments please email

By Paul Bailey

Head of co-design, part of a research and development team

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