For 2021-22, we need a new academic year

For Michelle Morgan, time is running out to pull together a plan for the 2020-21 academic year, and in the absence of government guidance the sector needs to work together to support current and future students.

Michelle Morgan is an independent consultant with an expertise in student transitions and the student experience.

The sector hoped that the worst of Covid-19 would be over by September 2020 and if it wasn’t, it would be manageable. Neither was the case. It was hoped it would be over by Christmas. It wasn’t. Now it is hoped it will be by Easter. It is already evident it won’t be.

Covid 19 is not going away in the short-term. No plan will be perfect and please everyone, but a new plan for how we deal with the next few months is needed, and such a plan requires collaboration.

Surely, if the last year has taught us anything, it is that we need to collaborate. We need to plan for Covid-19 being around for a while, and that there for a long term impact felt across higher education institutions in terms of delivery, finances, and student retention and satisfaction? For our current students and graduates, the impact could include mental health and wellbeing issues due to the isolation they experience, increased debt levels due to not being able to work during their studies, anger due to broken promises, imposter syndrome due to changes in assessment, and post study employment issues. We need to start addressing these now.

A need for application

We also need to start thinking about future applicants and the experience they will receive. With disputes over GCSE and A levels assessment in 2021 playing out differently in different parts of the UK, how institutions make offers to applicants needs to be planned for now to avoid the challenges and inequities that happened last year.

It is already being reported that applicant behaviour for 2021 entry has shifted with more applying to universities closer to home. Although some may argue that it is too small a sample to base change on, it would be foolish to ignore this evidence because it could well be the pattern of things to come – in light of the extensively reported accommodation issues experienced by current students this year, and for those feeling the need to be closer to their networks as a result of unexpected lockdowns.

We must not be dismissive of the power of the student voice when it comes to them influencing friends or siblings who are thinking about going to university. And as of January 2021, we are still uncertain about the level of current student continuation. Although students often surprise us with their consistency, we have never experienced a situation like this before and there is no historic data on student pandemic behaviour to help guide us.

Covid-19 and delayed Government guidance have been challenging, but the situation has been compounded by the sector not effectively collaborating to agree principles of action and an educational roadmap to help get us to the end of 2020-21 and beyond. In preparing for the next academic year, it will be more critical than ever to have a collaborative, apolitical joined up approach across tertiary education, that includes working with the secondary sector, to protect our students’ learning and their future.

So what can we do now?

The last nine months have highlighted the divisions across the HE sector. If we can’t effectively collaborate during a pandemic, when can we? So, we should set up a national educational taskforce consisting of key stakeholders to create a unified approach and principles of action. These should include NUS, UCAS, representatives from the different university mission groups, UUK, the Schools, Students and Teachers network (SSAT), cross political party education ministers, and leading educational commentators.

Problems, issues and ideas

Let’s look at the actual problems and issues that have occurred since the outbreak of Covid19 across HE and look at what sector commentators predicated and their suggested solutions. These covered an array of areas including an alternative admissions approach in 2020, accommodation issues, a September staggered start proposal, the reality of being able to teach face to face, moving to online learning, and mental health and wellbeing. Let’s collate good practice from across the sector that has moved incredibly quickly to adapt to the constantly changing environment and policy that has been thrust upon them. And importantly, collect the right data from current students about their study intentions (e.g. continuation, deferral, withdrawal or transfer), and applicants in light of the current landscape to help inform our approach. We need the NUS, Students’ Unions and UCAS to help us do this.

Develop a roadmap for an alternative academic year

The UCAS application cycle is well underway but with uncertainty about the forthcoming A-Level/Level 3 assessment approaches across the four countries, secondary and tertiary educators need to work together to create a joined up timetable for 2021-22 that will support this uncertainty and not disadvantage students. In England A level exams were firstly pushed back until June and July – with results to be published on 24 August – as of this morning it looks as if many, if not all, will be cancelled entirely. Elsewhere in the UK we are clearer on cancellation, but not on what comes next.

Whenever grades of any kind become available- and whether the clearing system remains or PQA of some kind is implemented – the start of the academic year will need to be pushed back for new students in order to provide adequate time to undertake all the preparation activities relating to starting university. With uncertainty about the prevalence of Covid-19 in 2021 and its impact on international student recruitment, UK applicants will continue to be as vital to the sector’s survival in 2021 as they were in 2020.

An alternative year should also encompass what feels like a “groundhog day” promise (that was broken) made by the Education Secretary for students to resit their exams and still have the chance to attend in 2021-22 (as in 2020-21). The strategy for the new academic year could include a plan B for a staggered September if Covid-19 is still proving problematic. What is pivotal is a strategy to deal with accommodation costs in the event of a delay in starting – or government policy requiring students to not use their term time accommodation. As many said back at the start of the pandemic, this aspect should have been part of any university bailout.

University offers

With Government pressure on universities to not use unconditional offers, university admissions processes should gear up for greater use of contextual offers if a fair and level playing field is to be provided. However, this takes more time to do than merely providing offers based on predicted grades for a quick turn around offer. Williamson has already stated that the inflated examination results at GCSE and A level will also be acceptable for this year so agreement on how this will be managed is essential to prevent the inequality that occurred in August 2020. This also raises the question whether the same results will be acceptable within universities?

Understanding and bridging learning gaps

Last year saw mass disruption across all levels of education in terms of learning and this will continue into 2021. For universities, it will be essential for them to work with the secondary sector to identify, understand and bridge the learning and skills gaps, and adapt course delivery, pre-arrival and in the first few weeks, to take account of this. And for the secondary sector, universities need to help them understand the expectations of higher education staff on entrants so they can effectively prepare and manage applicant expectations.

The success and survival of higher education is adaptability and collaboration and not division and the continued pursuit of marketisation . Now is the time to work together.

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