FOR many, it is a boozy rite of passage.

Freshers' week – the first week of university life – is synonymous with heavy drinking, big club nights and young people enjoying their first taste of adult freedom.

But as universities prepare for a phased return in the autumn, the coronavirus crisis means this year's student experience looks set to be very different.

Sweaty nightclubs will likely be off limits. Tables will be spaced out in bars to keep people apart. 

Freshers' fairs, in which university societies vie to attract new members, could be massively scaled back or moved online.

Meanwhile, quirky ways to encourage social distancing – such as large comedy hats or wearable tables – may become a feature of student union events.

A Universities UK briefing previously suggested students could be kept in small groups under a "protective bubble" approach.

It comes amid fears universities face operating deficits of between £383 million and £651 million in the next academic year alone.

Blake Gray, honorary secretary of the Glasgow University Union (GUU), said it is working on three different plans.

The first is based around a normal freshers' week, while the second is an "off-the-shelf" plan that would allow much of the traditional festivities to be delayed until it is safe to push ahead. 

The third looks at how freshers' week could take place with restrictions and social distancing.

This could involve greater use of online technology, while events usually held in smaller spaces – such as pub quizzes – could move to larger halls and debating chambers.

"I wouldn't underestimate the creativity and the ingenuity of students in coming up with things that we'll be able to do," Gray said.

He said the union is "cautiously optimistic" that bars will be open by September. 

Meanwhile, student officials have been attending online training sessions run by a security and stewarding company, focusing on ways the venue can operate safely.

"We're having risk assessments and things carried out," Gray said. "We're very keen that once we open again it will be safe and it will be secure."

He said the union "of course" feels sympathy for incoming students keen for a traditional freshers' week.

"We all had that experience, and we really loved it," he said. "We want to make sure we can give them as much of it as we can."

He added: "We're really focused on the idea that if we can't provide that type of experience in September, we really want to provide that at some point in the year and still have a freshers' week at some point."

Nam Ranpuria, president of the GUU, said it all depends on what guidance is in place at the time.

Kayla-Megan Burns, vice president of community at Strathclyde Students’ Union, also pointed to a greater use of online technology.

"I think we're definitely trying to get bars open because that is just one of the key places for students to socialise," she said.

"It's one of the freedoms that you get whenever you come to uni.

"People turn 18 and they can go out and socialise and have a drink with all of their new mates.

"So I think we're definitely going to try and keep them open, but at the same time, it'll be quite different.

"Tables will need to be more spaced out. 

"We're currently looking at more quirky ways to try and socially distance students. 

"You've seen across the globe clever and funny ways to keep people socially distanced, like wearing the funny hats with the big arms on them to keep people two metres apart, or the floating tables to give people a two metre radius."

She said such unusual measures might not look all that out of place in a student union, adding: "I think we'd be able to take it in our stride, hopefully."

Club nights present one of the biggest issues.

"At those kind of events students do tend to take a drink and that, and it becomes really, really difficult to ensure that people are socially distanced in that kind of crowd," Burns said.

"I don't know if that's going to be something we're going to be able to do straight away, because as much as we do want students to get those really crucial experiences where they get to go out and have a bit of fun, at the same time it's much better if we leave those kind of mad events until we know it's definitely safe. 

"The fun isn't worth it if students come out ill at the end of it."

Burns said forging a sense of community is "extremely beneficial for people's sense of wellbeing, and can be really beneficial for retention in university courses". 

International students could find it particularly tough.

She said the union is hoping to hold events in person, but it "won't be the same sort of thing". 

Burns said: "Previously, our fresher's fairs would take place across two days and our entire ten-storey building; nearly every nook and cranny would be filled with student societies, sports clubs, other student-related groups. 

"Our whole building would just be packed with that for two days straight. 

"Obviously social distancing just won't allow things like that to happen."

She said the fair could instead happen over a "much longer time period, so we don't need to worry about capacity as much". 

"Rather than everyone trying to jam in to see everything within two days, it's more likely that we would have a much smaller scale fair over the course of potentially a few weeks, so that students still get that experience but they aren't as at risk of being in a crowded space and social distancing measures are still able to be there and they're still able to be safe," she said.

Kellie Ioannou, vice president of student activities at Dundee University Students Association (DUSA), said it is not expecting its nightclubs to have reopened by freshers' week. 

She said: "In the absence of our club nights, we are exploring creative alternative events that comply with social distancing requirements but also ensure that students can connect with each other and with DUSA.

"When we do reopen our nightclubs, we plan to have a full freshers' week event programme, however, we understand this may not coincide with the start of the new academic year. 

"We will continue with our online DJ sets that we currently run over the weekends and we are still actively encouraging our fantastic student societies to host inventive online events."

She said the union is "in the process of investigating how our freshers' fair, which usually attracts over 4,000 people, can be facilitated online to ensure that students don’t miss out on signing up to over 200 student-led societies". 

It is a similar picture elsewhere.

Jamie Rodney, president of the University of St Andrews Students' Association, said freshers’ week "will look very different this year, but we're working hard behind the scenes to bring students some unique and creative events that can be enjoyed both from home and in St Andrews come September".

Meanwhile, Aberdeen University Students' Association said Covid-19 restrictions "mean that some of the typical freshers’ week events will not be able to take place as usual". 

It said it is "continuously monitoring the situation and opportunities to ensure that we can provide an exciting and welcoming experience for new and returning students", with a "variety of online and on campus activities planned".