Offer holders described a range of concerns stemming from coronavirus uncertaintyMike McBey/FLICKR

In a Government press briefing this week (14/05), the Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said that it 'is too early to say' if universities will resume in October. The current uncertainty about whether students will be in Cambridge in the next academic year is acutely felt by those who are yet to begin University.

Whether the University would resume for Michaelmas term was acknowledged by Vice-Chancellor Stephen Toope last week (07/05), in an email which outlined the University’s four ‘scenarios not forecasts’ for how it may proceed amidst the Covid-19 pandemic.

Two of the four scenarios indicated that students would not be physically present in Cambridge for the entirety of the next academic year whilst the other two indicated that continued social distancing would be necessary if students were to be in Cambridge.

These options are a distinct departure from the first-year experiences of those already studying at Cambridge, for whom freshers fairs, bops and college socials were often crucially important for their academic, social and geographical orientation.

Varsity spoke to eight prospective students about their pre-admission experience and their thoughts on a potentially very different first term.

"It would be pretty deflating to start my degree from my bedroom"

A student with an offer to study Music at Pembroke told Varsity: “I was always excited about starting university, however, now I am also nervous since it is very unclear what it is going to look like: whether we can be in Cambridge, whether it will be all online…. The uncertainty of not knowing what it will be like is frustrating.”

The student also highlighted concerns about being able to “meet people and make friends” and imagined the potential difficulties posed by social distancing measures making the term “quite an isolating experience”.

Another student, Jacob, who has an offer to study History and Politics at Queens’, suggested that if the Michaelmas term is delayed or only online it would be an “anti-climatic” experience. Jacob stressed that university should be more than a remote experience, and one which should be about “more than just the education, we want to live there.”

Odessa, who has an offer for Geography at Emmanuel feels similarly disheartened, telling Varsity that “it would be pretty deflating to start my degree from my bedroom.”

Social distancing during freshers’ week feels “logistically and mentally challenging”

Another student with an offer to study classics at Newnham considers the prospect of remote teaching particularly challenging for those with “difficult home circumstances.”

She feels that moving into university accommodation can do “leaps and bounds for providing the appropriate support that is needed for getting through the academic term” and that the Collegiate experience can create the “most ideal and healthy environment” for beginning the “next stage of higher education.”

Eve, who has an offer to study History at Queens’, described the “idea of having got a place at Cambridge but not being able to attend” as “pretty heartbreaking.” She believes that social distancing during freshers’ week feels “logistically and mentally challenging” and would be an “incredibly frustrating” experience.

Odessa expressed a similar sentiment, stressing that “any of the scenarios would compromise the university experience.” She went on to emphasise that “making friends and settling in would definitely be much harder” and that she doesn’t “fancy freshers’ week via zoom.”

University Communication

The prospective students also told Varsity that they have received little information from the University about plans for admission and Michaelmas term. Odessa stated she hadn’t received any communication from the University since the application process had concluded.

The University responded to Varsity in saying that "all the advice for offer holders" can be found on it's FAQ's page. 

The page details that college's will consider applicants "individually and holistically". Colleges will first and foremost consider applicants results and may make unconditional offers if there are "valid reasons" for an individual not meeting their offer. Applicants who do not make their offer may also be "placed in the summer pool for consideration by other colleges."

The University will also confirm applicants for admission in October 2021, who meet their "original offer" in a possible second wave of examinations later in the year, even if they did not meet their offer with their summer grades. 

While communication from the University has been limited, the amount of communication received from colleges by prospective students appears to vary widely.

An offer holder from Trinity Hall reported being sent “loads of lovely emails” by the college while other students feel that the communication from their prospective colleges have been “unhelpful” or non-existent.

One student told Varsity they have heard “nothing from the college except for updated terms of admission in January.”

Online teaching “can never be quite as good as learning in person”

Students also discussed the possibility of online-only teaching. The Government’s Universities Minister, Michelle Donelan, previously announced that universities will be able to continue to charge full tuition fees for online learning if the “quality is there.”

Eve remarked that she would not be “resentful” about paying full tuition fees because she understands for “administrative and academic staff, the workload is identical whether the students are learning remotely or on campus.”

The prospective Pembroke music student feels that online teaching “can never be quite as good as learning in person.”

Oren, who has an offer to study Engineering at Gonville and Caius, is concerned about the possibility of paying full fees if the interactive and lab-based elements of his degree were reduced and not re-taught at a later date.

Jacob believes that “full tuition fees for the first term would be unfair” but that he would be happy to pay reduced fees as he feels students would still be receiving a “bespoke education.”


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A “fresh chapter to start”

Despite the uncertainty and anxiety expressed by the prospective students, many expressed excitement at the thought of starting at Cambridge in October, in whatever capacity this may be.

Eve suggested that the possibility of going to University in October makes this challenging time “more bearable.”

The student with the offer to study Classics at Newnham is excited for a “fresh chapter to start” even if strict social distancing measures are in place.

Odessa emphasised how the prospect of starting University is keeping her “grounded and hopeful” during the lockdown.