Universities have reported strong applications for 2021/22, with students still opting to study agricultural related courses despite the Covid-19 pandemic.
Three of the UK’s leading agricultural universities have seen strong or record level applications from students wishing to study courses from September 2021, despite the Covid-19 pandemic.
It comes after September 2020 saw a rise in student enrolment, with the trend expected to continue this year.
Prof Tim Woods, pro-vice-chancellor for learning, teaching and student experience at Aberystwyth University, says the university’s digital open days saw on average a 50 per cent rise in attendance compared to previous years.
He says there was an increased online presence enabling them to introduce Aberystwyth university to more students.
Harper Adams and Royal Agricultural University (RAU) also held virtual events and open days to engage with prospective students, with Harper Adams offering a one-to-one chat service to connect future students with current students and staff members.
But for prospective students due to start in September 2021, it is unclear what form of studying will be in place.
Dr David Llewelyn, vice-chancellor at Harper Adams, says it is too soon to say how teaching, learning and student union social events will operate in September, given current Government guidance only covers up to March 8, 2021.
He says: “As ever, we will be endeavouring to offer the best possible experience, within the bounds of any Covid-19 secure restrictions.”
Aberystwyth University says it is currently preparing for the number of possible scenarios depending on Government guidelines.
Prof Woods says: “All of Aberystwyth’s first year students are guaranteed a place in university residences and we are fortunate as a university to be able to offer our students university accommodation throughout their studies with us.
“Students who joined in 2020 and those joining in 2021 will continue to have the opportunity to participate in exchange and study abroad programmes and the university has, through a sizeable donation from a former student, been able to protect opportunities for those who wish to study in the EU and further afield.”
RAU says it will continue to follow Government direction around the delivery of courses and looks forward to welcoming students back at campus as soon as possible.
Prof Jo Price, RAU vice-chancellor, highlights that RAU’s range of robust protective measures, including one-way systems and deep cleaning, have proved ‘hugely effective’, with the university experiencing relatively very few cases of Covid-19.
In line with Government guidance, all three universities adopted a period of blended delivery in 2020 and 2021, incorporating online learning with face-to-face practical sessions when restrictions allowed.
Prof Woods says: “In adapting our learning and teaching to the pandemic, we have benefited from some of the unique advantages we have here in Aberystwyth.
“This includes our ability to use a wide array of additional buildings, significant space for small group teaching, and our spacious, rural environment.
“In line with Government guidelines, we are committed to delivering as much in-person teaching as is safely possible in a Covid-19 secure environment, alongside tailored digital provision.”
Exploring career opportunities post-university has also remained a priority for universities.
Prof Price says: “RAU students have been supported in obtaining placements and jobs through a series of virtual events delivered with industry, including a careers fair, presentations, workshops and our annual ‘How to get a job in agriculture and food’ event.”
At Harper Adams, social gatherings and guest lecturers have moved online.
Dr Llewelyn says: “Our annual careers event, which usually brings 150-plus employers to campus, moved on to a digital platform, with success hailed by employers, staff and students.
“Our forthcoming scholarship event will also be online, celebrating the awards being made to students. In 2020, awards totalling more than £500,000 were presented.
“We have also developed enhanced support schemes, giving our students access to the technology they need to learn, access to a learning fund for those facing hardship, as well as access to additional learner support and mental health support services.”
But despite a shift to virtual learning and socialising, a sense of community and unity among the universities’ student body and staff has remained intact.
RAU has been running a varied programme of events from online yoga and virtual PT sessions to quizzes.
Prof Price says: “New students were able to get to know each other through freshers events held on campus at the start of the academic year, with socially distanced activities organised in a festival-themed ‘bubble’ village in the university grounds.”
She adds the last year had been unlike any other in RAU’s 175-year history.
“I have been hugely impressed and very proud of the resilience demonstrated by staff and students," she says.
“Students have looked out for each other, adapted to the ever-changing situation and fully embraced RAU life, even if it has looked somewhat different to previous years.
“It is very pleasing to see such strong interest in and engagement with the learning, knowledge exchange and thought leadership the RAU offers.
“Our graduates will be needed more than ever in the years ahead to help industry navigate the critical and sustainable change that is required.”
Dr Llewelyn adds: “At Harper Adams, our community of students, staff and supporters have been incredibly resilient.
“Some have found the impact of Covid-19 more challenging than others, but there has been a real sense of unity across the university.
“Students have been encouraged to provide feedback and have helped to improve or create new approaches to distance learning.”
Prof Woods says he is extremely grateful to students and staff at Aberystwyth, branding their response as ‘incredible’, adding: “All our staff have worked enormously hard for many months to continue to offer our students an experience which is as similar as possible to the high-quality experience we always aim to deliver.”