Is it in students’ interests to enrol in September?

Jim Dickinson has been trying to identify the students on programmes that should enrol in September - and he's struggling

Elsewhere on the site, Canadian HE expert Alex Usher describes the big decision facing universities around the world when it comes to what to do in September.

I’ve been thinking about big decisions too – but rather than those faced by universities, I’ve been trying to think about the decisions now facing students – principally those on taught programmes. And unless they have no choice, I can’t think of many that are going to choose to enrol in September.

Make me an offer

Let’s look first at applicants. Announcing the two-week freeze on offer amendment, OfS’ Nicola Dandridge had advice for applicants as follows:

The risk is that an unconditional offer may appear superficially attractive, but may not represent the right decision. Students should take time to consider their options, and take advice.

She’s right, of course. As we are constantly reminded, university is a major investment of (deferred) payment and time. As OfS’ Conor Ryan puts it,

When what you are choosing could make a huge difference to the rest of your life, it is important that choice is well-informed”

But what sort of information is out there right now? The idea that a course’s LEO data will accurately predict what you’ll earn was already for the birds. Satisfaction measures like the NSS look at what universities were delivering last year – not what they may well have hastily developed for this September. And all those Open Days – virtual or not – show off facilities that may well not be allowed to be used by the time that Freshers Week doesn’t roll around. It’s one thing to rely on “force majeure” over what you couldn’t deliver to continuing students, but it’s probably not possible for future students.

By September, a fair guess is that we’ll be lurching in and out of social distancing measures that would make moving house to “go to university” highly unwise, both personally and publicly – and pretty risky, both personally and publicly.

And that level of uncertainty/risk – both about Covid-19 in general and a student’s choice of university specifically – doesn’t suggest that a student should intend to enrol in September if they can avoid it and defer a year.

Carry on student

Then we should look at continuing students. The efforts to assist students in the past few weeks to continue to learn and complete their courses are laudable. But it’s safe to assume that whatever we’re doing, for a very high percentage of students it won’t be enough. There are students whose courses and curricula can’t stretch, or whose home circumstances can’t stretch either.

And this isn’t just about PSRBs, or disabled students, or international students, or disadvantaged students – although right now I shudder at the widening inequalities about to manifest in “good honours” results. Discrimination – direct and indirect – is still discrimination, even if it happens because of going at a pace over Covid-19.

It’s all the independent study, and the library access, and the group projects, and the supervised research projects. Spend some time on Twitter with the right searches, and you’ll see – here, in the middle of a student mental health epidemic, it may not be in students’ interests to just “carry on”. So many students need a pause – and if they can take a year out, they’ll want to. If not – why not?

Prepare and plan

Once we’re there – and I suspect one of the reasons for the frantic attempts to hurl unconditional offers at prospective students is because some have already spotted from enquiries that we are there already – we can at least prepare and plan. And I think this all means a step change in thinking about business interruption.

If the theories are right, the “purchase” of higher education doesn’t fit much of the normal frameworks around customers buying services because the relationship is long term, rather than the fleeting transaction involved in buying a mars bar. So that does mean that a business interruption intervention can work – but the Government is going to have to view that not from the perspective of three months, but much longer instead.

Just imagine, for a minute, that in a week or so’s time the moratorium on offer amending is lifted. Are we really saying that universities desperate for the funding units in the face of collapsing demand are going to be allowed to run an even more “hunger games” version of clearing and adjustment than usual? And what are they going offer? Job prospects? Access to facilities? “Look! Our academics have learned how to use Zoom – even better than everyone else has!”

And just think of the risks. There now must be – without a big bailout from DfE on its way – materially more dramatic risks to continuation of study, access to facilities, the ability to deliver services with care and skill, and even risks that some students (like Disabled Students) some courses (that under recruit) or some material components of those courses (bye bye module choice) fall over. The only fair thing to do would be to rewrite every student protection plan and reject a fair few for not actually shifting the risks away from students at all. Really?

Stop, collaborate and listen

I’d love this blog to get old quickly, for us all to get back to normal as soon as possible. But I suspect a “pause” – and I mean a major “pause” – is now the only thing really in the “student interest”.

This “big freeze” means big incentives being given to students that we do need as a society and an economy to start training immediately. It means a financial injection that enables current students to complete their teaching, independent study and research over a longer (and therefore now fairer) period of time.

It means that rather than experiencing a collapse in September’s recruitment, we could officially plan for a January Freshers’ Week (with a proper shift to PQA available as a side bonus). It means time to plan curricula that really work online if we have to and warn students properly to that end.

And it means a shuttering of as much of the “competitive market” as we can manage as soon as possible. The other options are simply too risky to students, communities and the country that has discovered it needs universities after all.

2 responses to “Is it in students’ interests to enrol in September?

  1. Great piece Jim. If we can/allowed, resume study with returners in October and intake new students in January for both UG and PGT. Institutions could rework the academic year by utilising the summer term. It will just take will.

  2. I think this misses a crucial point; it is surely impossible for the admissions system to fairly place what would essentially be a double cohort in September 2021 if this cycle was lost.. in that sense, It certainly would be in the best interest of some students, say on the fringe of Russel group admissions to enter in September 2020 when they’re much more likely to achieve a place than next year, when they’d face double the competition.

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