Supporting the Covid cohort with transition to higher education

Richard Boffey reveals the results of a study focussed on helping applicants hit by the pandemic to transition into higher education.

Richard Boffey is Head of AccessHE at London Higher

In recent weeks universities across the country have been enrolling the second cohort of school and college leavers since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The consensus view of a substantial and growing body of research, not to mention of the professional services and academic staff who interact with these incoming students, is that they will be entering higher education carrying the scarring effects of the pandemic and the attendant disruption to their schooling and exam preparations.

We are still some way off understanding exactly how the lost learning and lost opportunities of the past 18 months manifest when it comes to young people’s transition into higher education. That’s why AccessHE, the widening participation division of London Higher, commissioned a large-scale survey of young people in London in summer 2021 with the support of the polling agency YouthSight. We explored how the “Covid cohort” in the capital view higher education, how they prepare for it and where differences in attitudes and preparedness emerge between learner groups – and have written up the findings into a report, Best Laid Plans.

Like nothing ever changed

What is immediately apparent from the survey responses is the very high continuing demand for higher education amongst school and college leavers. Almost all respondents were either actively considering applying to university or already held an offer and for a sizeable proportion (46 percent), this was the only route they had contemplated when weighing up post-secondary options – an interesting finding in the context of the government’s efforts to direct greater numbers of them towards technical and vocational pathways.

The most cited motivations for applying were the intellectual appeal HE held for respondents and the job security it was seen to provide. By contrast, fewer than three out of ten students indicated that they were motivated to apply for tactical reasons such as shielding from the economic impacts of the pandemic. The “Covid cohort” embrace HE not as a least bad option, but for the same positive reasons as pre-2019 intakes.

They resemble earlier cohorts in what they expect from universities, too. Nine out of ten respondents to this survey planned to participate in student societies and over two thirds of them expected small group teaching at the very least to be delivered in person. When asked to select from a list of common concerns, students ranked “miss[ing] out on important parts of the student experience due to Covid-19” third, behind fears about making friends and coping with academic work. The pandemic is not absent from their thinking but clearly does not define their expectations prior to commencing study.

Whilst this is welcome, it indicates a potential mismatch between expectations and reality, especially as different institutions and programmes will retain differing levels of online provision. Moving forward, providers and bridging organisations such as UCAS and the 29 Uni Connect partnerships should consider embedding course-level information about teaching delivery methods into their post-16 information, advice and guidance (IAG).

Models of preparedness

With respect to higher education preparation, survey responses suggest that different groups of students prepare in different ways. Self-guided preparation was most evident amongst the groups currently most represented in higher education, whereas underrepresented learner groups were more likely to turn to teachers and HE staff for IAG. This held true especially for FIF students, who emerged very clearly as a discrete group in the survey data.

Whilst around a third of those with family experience of higher education said they would speak to a parent or family member about higher education options, less than a fifth of FIF students said they would do this. The example neatly illustrates a wider point made in the report about post-pandemic transition support.

If, as in the case of FIF students, underrepresented learner groups typically seek information about higher education outside of the family home and have high levels of trust in providers as sources of IAG, then there is an opportunity for providers themselves to develop longer-term, scaffolded forms of support for these students, complementing established pre-enrolment activities such as transition weeks.

Future transitions

How can this move towards more personalised forms of transition support be achieved? The report recommends two things. Firstly, more research is needed into how young people’s post-secondary choices are shaped and mediated following the disruptions of the pandemic – especially in settings such as the home, given the preparedness gaps we discern for FIF students.

Secondly, young people themselves must be engaged as meaningful partners in the design of interventions. A regional approach could prove useful here: in London we recommend that a standing youth committee is convened and acts as a point of liaison for all providers in the capital to ensure young people’s concerns and needs are factored into transition support. But there is no good reason that same approach could not be adopted across the other English regions too.

Overall, our findings give grounds for optimism in its conclusion about likely levels of progression over coming years but also point to some complex emerging challenges in how this is managed.

The responses of the more than 500 survey participants provide a rich source of data and insights for outreach and student support professionals whether they are based in or outside of London. Although the respondents’ attitudes reflect specific experiences within the capital’s school and college system and progression infrastructure during the pandemic, they speak to wider concerns about and approaches to the transition too.

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