Cambridge became the first university in Britain to cancel all face-to-face lectures in the academic year 2020-21 because of the coronavirus pandemic, after 800 years of welcoming students to its cloisters, courts and classrooms.
It probably won't be the last, as the virus threatens the foundations of traditional student experience and the finances of universities around the world.
Cambridge said on Tuesday that all lectures will be delivered virtually and transmitted online by the summer of 2021. He said it may be possible to conduct tutorials and other teachings in small groups – an essential part of the university system – when the new year start in October, as long as social distancing can be followed.
The university, which has about 12,000 undergraduate students, said in a statement that "the decision has now been made to facilitate planning, but as always, it will be reviewed if there are changes to official coronavirus councils."
Students sent home
The pandemic has already damaged student life. Cambridge sent students home and changed all of its online teaching in March, when the UK went into confinement and exams are being taken remotely. Across Britain and around the world, graduation ceremonies and spring dances have been ruled out.
California State University announced last week that it will hold a virtual fall semester and keep classrooms closed, becoming the first major US college to cancel lectures for the fall.
British universities are warning that they will face a financial crisis if students decide that they do not want to pay tuition fees – currently £ 9,250 (about $ 15,800 Cdn) a year in England – for a university experience devoid of face-to-face and extra-curricular clubs and socialization. Some students who were supposed to start in the fall are likely to postpone for a year in the hope that things will return to normal by then.
Nicola Dandridge, who heads the higher education regulator, Office for Students, said this week that universities need to clarify what kind of experience students might expect before June, when graduates decide whether they want to attend college in the fall.
"What we don't want to see are promises that everything will be back to normal – an on-campus experience – when that happens to be the case," she told Parliament's education committee.
The travel blockages and restrictions imposed because of the pandemic have also cut the flow of international students, who pay higher fees and form an important source of income for UK universities.
For now, Cambridge and other British universities are preparing for some students to return in the fall. The University of Manchester said it has moved all online lectures to the fall period, but still expects students to move into their homes.
The University of Edinburgh said it would adopt a "hybrid model" instead of becoming entirely virtual.
"Having hundreds of students gathered in classrooms is unlikely to be safe or possible," Vice Chancellor Peter Mathieson told the BBC on Wednesday. "But we intend to offer teaching in small groups and all the other campus experiences that set us apart."