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Monday 15th June 2020 to Wednesday 17th June 2020

Isaac Newton Institute

United Kingdom


This three day virtual study group aimed to try to help unlock higher education in the UK following the lockdown.

Universities and the knowledge they create have been vital in the fight against the COVID19 pandemic; we have seen innovation coming from the academic base inform policy in modelling pandemics, develop track and trace capability and carry out fundamental work in clinical trials for a vaccine to name but a few contributions. In addition, universities support economic growth in their regions through direct employment and the many services and outlets connected to them.

However, universities are suffering in the face of the pandemic with campuses largely closed, physical teaching courses suspended and many staff furloughed. The vibrant ecosystems that are UK universities, combine teaching, research and social activities and consequently opening them back up to normal operation will pose significant challenges including among others:

  • access and flow of people through buildings,
  • shared surfaces and bathrooms,
  • potential for aerosol transmission in indoor spaces,
  • operation of food outlets,
  • operation of leisure facilities,
  • interaction between the university, the wider local community, and home communities of students and staff,
  • interaction with public transport.

The challenge of opening universities back to closer to normal operation can be seen as a complex, multi-level problem where challenges exist on a building level, a campus level, and a community level. The Virtual Forum for Knowledge Exchange in the Mathematical Sciences (V-KEMS) was set up to help solve Covid-19 related problems. We have pioneered a successful virtual format for study groups, a proven mechanism that brings academic mathematicians together with problem holders in industry and the public sector to address real-world challenges through collaborative modelling.

Aims and Objectives

The study group focused on applying mathematical tools and models to various issues linked to these complex challenges. Around 40 researchers and end-users were assembled to discuss, and provide potential avenues of exploration for opening up universities.

Previous work through V-KEMS discussed general mathematical principles which could be considered when unlocking the workforce, and to a certain extent, this problem built on that foundation of knowledge with an application to university operation. In particular, we were interested in understanding: 

  • How much would grouping students into bubbles based on geography (halls of residence, residential streets) and using these to organise access to campus reduce transmission of disease compared to allowing everyone on at the same time? 
  • Can students access social activities within their bubbles as well as academic ones?
  • What can we say about the benefits of bubbles and / or a less densely occupied campus?
  • How small would bubbles need to be to make a difference and consequently how much time would students be able to spend on campus?
  • How much could bubbles facilitate control of transmission through test, trace and isolate?
  • How might some general principles apply to professional services and facilities staff such cleaners and security staff to reduce transmission on campus?
  • What about transport to and from campus? How might one manage the interaction with local transportation routes?     
  • What can we say about the transmission of infection between a university, its local community and the wider home communities of staff and students?

Over the three days, teams developed a list of topics in consultation with end-users. Once the main considerations had been established, these were built into model development. Such model building included for instance, Bayesian belief networks, agent-based modelling, bubble scheduling. Time was also given to developing strategies for effectively communicating models and model assumptions to the end users.

As this was a multifaceted challenge with many players, we were very keen to engage broadly across those relevant parties. There were diversity and inclusion considerations we needed to capture in the conversation. As such, we were delighted to have representation from COO's of universities, estates and services professionals and a Student Union representative.

We were particularly interested to engage with university representatives who were able to provide data on relevant aspects of university life, for example 
-    building layouts and capacities
-    timetables
-    accommodation statistics

Delegate Information

A briefing document was provided before the event and can be downloaded below.

 A working paper is published below, which highlights the discussions that took place at the Study Group and the initial findings. 

 Nick Holliman, Professor of Visualization at Newcastle University has since produced some slides that highlight the discussions that took place and the models that were used during the study group.

If you have any questions about the event please email us.

Please note that the names and affiliations of registered delegates will be shared with ICMS and the KTN.

In collaboration with