This article is more than 3 years old

Students need a staggered start next year

This article is more than 3 years old

Michelle Morgan is Dean of Students at the University of East London. 

Covid19 has created an environment that is “unprecedented”, and universities are working extremely hard to respond to the immediate needs of students and staff.

The recent “No Buildings in September” event hosted by Wonkhe and Aula demonstrated the willingness and ability of colleagues across the sector to adapt and innovate in these uncertain times.

What we know

Across all institutions, there is recognition that the impact on higher education is going to be phenomenal, both in the short and long term, and that we need to think and behave differently in order to look after the wellbeing of our applicants, students and staff.

There is acknowledgment that university life will not be back to normal this autumn hence the focus of the debate about starting the new academic year for all students online. We are also mindful that in 2020/21, the population under 18 years of age will decline by a further 2%, so recruitment in the current climate will be even more challenging.

And we also know that applicants and students who are advantaged because they have access to economic, social and cultural capital are highly more likely to prevail in these difficult times than those that don’t. What we don’t know though, is how applicants and students will feel about starting university in 2020/21 in the current uncertain situation.

Are we having the right discussion?

And yet the discussion and suggested approaches in the past few weeks has focussed on why the Government should bail out universities, but no consideration on how to protect the sector as a whole. Neither has it paid serious attention to the expectations, experience and outcomes of applicants and students this year who are and will continue to incur significant financial and learning disadvantages.

For the majority of universities, students are their financial life blood. However, for applicants and returning students across all levels of study to come to university in the coming academic year, they and their families need to feel confident that they will be safe on campus and able to engage in a university experience that they expected and for which they are paying a significant amount of money.

So to maximise recruitment, progression, retention and the success of our students, we need to phase them back to higher education over a term.

A staggering solution

Returning students (including students on placement 19/20) and direct entry applicants going into Levels 5 and 6 could start in mid to late October. Where possible, laboratory and workshop courses could be phased back first followed by classroom based ones.

This will allow students who may not have had the chance to develop the hands on pre-requisite skills required to progress because of the shut down, time to do so. They would need to be weaved into the upcoming course delivery. This approach provides staff with adequate time to concentrate on each level and get students engaged and embedded back into their studies. It will also help with social distancing.

New Level 3 and 4 undergraduate and PGT entrants could start mid January. However, it may be that an October start is required for some courses such as nursing especially if a university doesn’t have a January intake.

This staggered approach provides potential numerous benefits. It allows the admissions process for UG and PGT to continue through to late November 2020. This provides space and time for A-Level appeals to take place and any opportunity, if offered, for an applicant to undertake the examination in the Autumn, as has been promised by the Department of Education and OfQual, or a university entry exam.

A January start also provides breathing space for individuals who had not thought about further study at UG or PGT level to think about their options. This could be an attractive opportunity for those unable to find employment between qualification confirmation and Christmas (which we know is going to be challenging) to consider further study. At PGT level, the grants NUS has suggested be made available in their Covid-19 research could help participation at this level.

If international travel restrictions are not fully lifted across the world by September, but there is some movement (which is looking increasingly likely), it still provides time for international applicants to make arrangements to come in January. And for universities who rely on international recruitment, this could be far more financially beneficial than having entrants defer for a year.


With this approach, the financial year can remain unchanged, but a staggered start will impact on cashflow. There are two options. Firstly, the profile of payments from the Student Loan Company could be changed. For example, the first two terms for returning students could be paid in the first term and the necessary adjustments made in the third. Or a balanced package of financial support could include a free or low interest loan to help fund the staggered return between October to January, which universities could pay back over a few years as suggested by David Kernohan.

There are core issues that need to be addressed for a staggered return and include:

  1. Obtaining the confidence of applicants, students, and staff that our campuses are ‘safe’ in teaching and study space, social areas and accommodation.
  2. Ensuring the student voice is heard and that concerns, and worries are addressed, and appropriate support mechanisms developed and provided.
  3. Planning for continuation of restricted or closed borders preventing international student travel.
  4. Accommodation and financial loss for students and universities.
  5. Supporting transitions and identifying skill and confidence gaps.
  6. Continuation and development of online learning including the collection of ‘engagement’ data.
  7. Maintaining support and wellbeing provision.
  8. Effective space planning for curriculum delivery in the event of continuing social distancing.
  9. The development of effective communication strategies to keep applicants and students regularly updated, informed, engaged, and connected to their studies.
  10. Harnessing the “learnings” from the lockdown across the sector in helping shape the future of higher education.

More than ever, this is the time when the higher education sector needs to come to a consensus, and agree a pragmatic collaborative plan of action that provides stability and confidence in helping HEIs move forward together in these uncertain times.

Collaboration not competition

As Paul Ashwin, Professor of Education at Lancaster University argued on The Wonkhe Show a couple of weeks ago – a sector wide approach is essential.

You can’t leave this to the market. You can’t leave it to the interests of individual institutions. You have to have some coordination by policy makers that actually looks out for the health of the sector as a whole rather than letting the strongest and most dominant voices, which tend to be prestigious institutions, fight for a system that suits them, but severely hurts other institutions”.

Michelle’s full proposal and support materials can be viewed here.

5 responses to “Students need a staggered start next year

  1. Interesting proposal, because it would allow (1) all students to start the academic year even if travel restrictions are still in place in the autumn, and (2) HEI to plan in that perspective.

    If it was only for the health risk, campuses could re-open next week (as shown here:

    Not absolutely sure staggered start could be implemented sector-wide, though, as some universities have already offered a dual online+offline ‘wherever you are’ October start, which leaves each individual student more flexibility.

    Also, a planned January carries a risk of backlashing (again) at the sector in the event of an even small winter resurgence. Most governments have been so unscientific and undiscerning so far that you never know what’s coming next.

  2. It is an interesting proposal!

    The future is so uncertain, however, the only risk would be a second wave of Covid-19 during winter months- december and january. If that should happen, and we are forced back into lockdown, Level 3-4-PGT students may not be able to begin, and will be required to study online anyway :/

    Additionally, many students are also wondering about their opportunities if they defer a year. What would they do? What happens if universities do not let them ‘defer’ but ask them to re-apply again next year? What if, due to cuts, their course of choice is not even available next year?

  3. Agree Clare about the uncertainty. So let’s deliver a logical plan that applicants and students feel is possible = more confidence. Universities need to listen to applicants and students because they hold the power to defer, to leave and to intermit. If we come together as sector, and move forward together we can create much more stability. Then the worry and refusal of universities doing anything different, which they feel could result in another uni ‘poaching’ their applicants/ students, should disappear. We cant prevent second waves but a staggered start keeps the HE machinery moving, it helps universities plan, execute and refine social distancing and it enables face to face teaching to occur rather than putting everyone online. We need to understand what our students feel about returning to online study only prior to making a decision because we don’t want to find out when they decide to defer/intermit at the last minute just before the academic year. The right questions are not being asked by many universities at the moment. The University of Lincoln is an example of good practice.

  4. There is growing evidence that new students want to defer entry until they can be sure of campus based study. So a staggered start is a sensible response to what students want. The proposals to protect cash flow for universities are sound and won’t cost the Government or students real money. If there is a second wave of infection in the autumn/winter, we should be much better informed about behaviour and be able to effect a more nuanced response than total campus closure.

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