Prospective students may consider deferring, but so far few are taking action

There's plenty of nervousness about September, but current data indicates the recruitment cycle is on track, says Sander Kristel.

Three months ago today, it was the end of the last normal week of society. Three months from now, students will begin enrolling onto their courses.

As applicants’ extended decision date approaches on 18 June when they’ll be selecting their first choice of course for the autumn, it feels the right time to unpack the factors affecting applicants’ decisions, and take a closer look at what’s influencing their behaviour in this most atypical of years.

The sector’s thirst for getting into applicants’ heads and understanding their views is understandably insatiable. A day has scarcely passed without the publication of a different survey that attempts to get inside the collective applicant mind and/or predict how many students will look to start a university or college course this autumn.

We’ve shared the findings of one of our surveys with YouthSight on Wonkhe, including the message that the actual application data was reassuringly dull in late April. As time has passed, we have monitored applicant sentiment through continual survey work, plus important other metrics that report on their behaviours, allowing us to join dots and triangulate findings.

Over time, applicant sentiment has gradually become more polarised, with increasing proportions (currently just over 40 per cent) indicating they are considering changing their plans. As lockdown set in, this is to be expected, and these results came in before universities and colleges began announcing their plans for September.

20 per cent of respondents, up from 15 per cent a month ago, say the biggest single worry they have is “missing out on the experience”. This has now overtaken online learning (16 per cent) as the most common top worry about starting university. fewer young applicants have a major concern about not having access to the right facilities (10 per cent), not having enough contact hours (7 per cent, increasing from 4 per cent in early May), and not having a freshers’ week (also 7 per cent).

Notwithstanding, most applicants are saying that they are still targeting an autumn start and as universities and colleges are now communicating about what life might be like in September, we will continue to track student sentiment over the summer.

To defer, or undefer?

How this sentiment has translated into decisions and action is fascinating. Deferrals have been one of the hottest topics in recent weeks. However, compared to last year, numbers are not as stark as many might expect them to be. As of earlier this week, 31,380 applicants have at least one deferred choice, compared to 30,760 at the same point last year. So just a 2 per cent increase, which should also be seen alongside a 1.2 per cent rise in overall applicants. It’s clear that while more applicants are thinking of deferring, those thoughts are not yet translating into definitive actions.

The number of applicants making the decision to defer after originally applying for entry this September is currently 11,920, an increase of just 2 per cent from last year, with no significant patterns in applicants’ ages or domiciles.

In fact, the only notable divergence from on-trend behaviour is applicants doing the opposite, and un-deferring – they initially indicated they wanted to take a gap year but have now changed their mind and want to study this autumn.

There is a 19 per cent increase in these un-deferrers, from 2,680 in 2019, to 3,190. This group isn’t homogenous though, with UK 18 year olds fuelling the growth as 610 more young applicants (2,080 in 2020, 1470 in 2019) have un-deferred. It seems that the traditional gap year is falling by the wayside in 2020. Students who initially wanted to take a year away from education are finding their options are increasingly limited.

The gap between concern and action

Between saying (survey results) and doing (making decisions on their application), there is the space for researching options. While survey data shows an increased appetite for deferring, applicants’ interactions with us also show changes from last year. Just over a quarter (26 per cent) say they have done some research into making changes, with 16 per cent saying they have undertaken some “serious research” in the form of contacting UCAS, their current or new university or college to discuss their options.

Web traffic to the UCAS.com information page on deferrals in late May was up, on par with last year’s A level results day. There has also been a marked increase in applicants getting in touch with us – we recorded a 17 per cent increase in people calling us specifically to make a change in their application during April and May. However, once again, neither of these increases have translated into clear action on deferring or withdrawing applications.

The final countdown

Thursday 18 June is a key date. It is when applicants will need to decide their firm and insurance choices ahead of Clearing opening on 6 July. Ten days out, on Monday 8 June, 69,000 UK applicants (plus 12,000 EU and 30,000 non-EU students) had yet to make their decisions, which is somewhat lower than is expected. Ahead of last year’s reply dates (there were two, rather than the single extended deadline we have in 2020), over 115,000 UK students were undecided, with 15,000 EU applicants, though 25,000 non-EU applicants, still to decide.

We’re advising students that making a decision is better than no decision, as it will give them more control later in the cycle – plus it’s worth students remembering why they chose their course in the first place, as those reasons will still be valid once the pandemic passes. We expect the number of those undecided to fall significantly in the coming days, as last year more than one in four applicants had not replied to their offers a week before their deadline.

People are also still applying at similar rates as in previous years, and we continue to expect more older applicants. Our previous research has also shown that mature applicants are more likely to apply in the summer months than those leaving school, with 44 per cent applying after the January deadline, compared to 3 per cent of 18 year olds. The potential for coronavirus to influence the popularity of certain subjects is another intriguing topic and we’ll be looking to explore this further in the weeks and months ahead.

It is natural that applicants’ feelings towards starting courses as planned in the autumn have changed over time, taking a more pessimistic turn in recent weeks. However, there are still three months or more until doors were due to open, and as lockdown continues to ease, we are all hoping (safety permitting) that campuses will be able to welcome students in some form.

Our current modelling of the overall variance in recruitment for acceptances for this cycle, based on surveys and analytical data, estimates that a best case scenario of just 2 per cent fewer home students will start in the autumn compared to last year, while the most pessimistic outcome is likely to be around 10 per cent fewer – which should also be seen in the context of 2020 being the final year of the UK 18 year old demographic dip.

It will be a collective effort to show unity and value in the UK’s higher education sector for the 2020/21 academic year. With increasing numbers of universities and colleges outlining their plans to reopen campus and offer some face-to-face teaching next year, supplemented by online learning, we can build confidence in the experience and opportunities on offer for students of all backgrounds this autumn.

This article is published in association with UCAS. 

One response to “Prospective students may consider deferring, but so far few are taking action

  1. It’s great to hear from UCAS on thoughts about the current cycle. I think UCAS should go a step further and release the cycle data. Not provider level, that would be unreasonable. In normal cycles we wait patiently for the January after to see how the cycle has played out However, this is no normal cycle. Releasing aggregate data would help universities and students to navigate uncertainty, it would help to shine a light on any emerging issues in equality of access – at the core of UCAS’ charitable purpose. Regular data releases would enable speedy analysis of what is going on, allow alternative perspectives and support a sector managing difficult circumstances – a huge help to UCAS members and business customers.

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