Australian universities take tentative steps towards opening after Covid-19

‘Controlled’ return of international students on the cards for second semester but some institutions stay mostly online

The Australian National University in Canberra is preparing for a return to face-to-face teaching in July.

The Australian National University in Canberra is preparing for a return to face-to-face teaching in July.
Photograph: Alan Porritt/AAP

Universities around Australia are taking very different paths towards reopening their campuses amid growing frustration from students, particularly first years, whose campus life was cut short by the Covid-19 pandemic just a week or two into the academic year.

Some, such as the University of Technology, Sydney, and the University of New South Wales, are staying with a predominantly online approach for the second half of the year. Others, such as the Australian National University in Canberra and University of Newcastle, are preparing for a return to face-to-face teaching on campus next month, albeit mainly for smaller group teaching.

On Friday Scott Morrison announced plans to pilot ways to open up the borders to international students. The pilots could begin next month, the prime minister said, in time for second semester at many institutions.

International students could come “in a very controlled setting”, but only for pre-approved plans for particular universities.

International students being unable to attend is one of the biggest dilemmas for many universities. It raises questions of how to provide equality in the teaching experience for domestic and international students, as well as serious financial issues..

Many institutions have spent millions equipping their universities for online delivery of degrees and training staff.

Now facing serious financial pressures they will need to provide both online and campus options at a time when they are planning to make thousands of staff redundant and asking those who remain to take pay cuts.

Teachers at primary and high schools complained that the transition back to classroom teaching in June put serious additional workloads on teachers who were trying to juggle in-class and online learning.

University of Newcastle University said it was in discussions with the government over a plan to bring international students onshore.

All small group teaching will resume face-to-face in second semester at Newcastle, except for some specialised laboratories which presented logistical challenges.

“Lectures with greater than 100 students will continue in study from home format for the moment,” a spokeswoman said.

“The return to face-to-face teaching is university-wide. We are working through individual circumstances with heads of schools.”

Colleges will also reopen. The university is adopting a staged occupancy approach to colleges and prioritising the accommodation applications of residents who have previously lived on campus in 2020.

“In considering applications, we will be looking at different factors including hometown location (distance from campus) and study load,” the spokeswoman said.

The ANU is also moving in deliberate stages to resume campus life.

From 27 July, when its second semester starts, most tutorials will resume and the library will return to normal opening hours with each school responsible for developing a plan. Some lecture theatres will open.

ANU has been allowing campus access for postgraduate students and those who need access to labs for some weeks.

The university is also working on plans to reopen food outlets and the gym.

The residential colleges are also taking in more students, although there will be strict rules about using shared facilities and it is likely numbers will be restricted.

The University of Melbourne said on Thursday it would have “a phased, partial return to campus, with a focus on priority areas while minimising density, movement, gatherings and time spent on campus”.

“Increased activity is being spread across our campuses and the effectiveness of each incremental change is being monitored and assessed regularly,” it said.

Staff and students will require formal approval to return, and will need to complete a health declaration.

However, other institutions have opted to remain predominantly online for now. UTS said all subjects being taught online would remain so for spring 2020.

But some subject activities would return to face-to-face teaching under strict physical distancing protocols. These include those that require the use of facilities and equipment, and subjects that require preparation before an external placement.

The University of NSW, which operates on three terms, began term two on 1 June with teaching almost entirely online. Only some higher degree research students have been allowed on campus.