Why are record numbers of students deferring?

Jim Dickinson examines claims that record numbers of students are deferring their entry to university and thinks through the sort of protection we could offer

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Last year the sector was so worried about deferral that special videos were commissioned to discourage it.

“Don’t look back, move forward, get to the next level” might have felt like the right message just as we were being encouraged to “Eat out to help out”, but it’s not necessarily a message that matched the reality of the risks. And we all know what happened next.

So what’s going on this year? Following a couple of weeks of reporting about students on medicine and dentistry courses being paid to defer, Friday’s UCAS dashboard shows the total number of deferrals so far as 28,880, which is up from the same point last year.

There’s no need to panic yet. Despite headlines about “record” deferrals, we’re still only looking at just over 6 per cent of undergraduates opting for a pause. But could they increase in the next few weeks – and should they?

I’ll be honest – If I was about to go to university as an undergraduate first year and I could keep my place for Sep 2022, I’d defer. The risks (to my experience if not my health) look real, the protections in place are weak and a pause looks more attractive than ever.

Take a chance on me

Let’s look at the risks first. Over in the US, Cornell University has a vaccine mandate requiring at least the first dose of vaccination for students returning to its Ithaca, Geneva and Cornell Tech campuses – as well as weekly testing for those vaccinated, twice weekly for those unvaccinated, and mask wearing indoors at all times.

Nevertheless last week, just two days into fully in-person classes, it moved to “alert level yellow” as cases soared among students – linked “overwhelmingly” with informal / off-campus social events and activities. Now masks are being mandated indoors and outdoors, those with the virus are being moved into dedicated isolation accommodation, and university events, student activities and other gatherings are to be limited, canceled or moved online.

That was with a 95 per cent vaccine participation rate. Here three in ten under 30s are still refusing the vaccine, only a handful of universities are actually tracking vaccination rates, and today the Independent reports that a significant proportion of those with dose 1 aren’t bothering with dose 2.

In the Observer, Susan Michie, director of the centre for behaviour change at University College London and member of the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours (SPI-B), says that even if freshers’ events were held outdoors there would still be a “high risk” associated with them:

Freshers’ fair week will have the potential for being a superspreader event, and however much universities pay attention to making it as safe as possible, it’s the behaviour of people that won’t be known… You have large numbers of people coming from all over the world, travelling all over the country. It’s not just being at university but people are in halls of residence where they are crowding into each other’s rooms for drinks in the evening, or shared flats outside of university.”

In the same piece, Danny Altmann, professor of immunology at Imperial and a member of the Sage immunology taskforce, said that despite the vaccine rollout, the UK was in a worse situation than we were last August as the new term edges closer:

So if I imagine vast numbers of kids getting together in halls of residence and in freshers’ week parties, I think how can one not predict that will lead to very large spikes in numbers? It feels like another case of wishful thinking – mind over matter that somehow there’s going to be some miracle and it’s all going to be OK. From my knowledge, I can’t see how or why it should be OK.”

I’ve reflected at length on here about the folly of careful capacities in lecture theatres while we pack halls and nightclubs – and even if the horse hasn’t bolted yet, the proportion of stable doors owned and controlled by the sector and so able to be locked separately from those in wider society is minimal.

All four nations seem to be relatively blase about the risks of Covid-19 to young people. But while rampant viral amplification and transmission among students is one thing, if that then tips into the community that’s quite another. And that’s all assuming that we don’t get a new problem variant or waning vaccination efficacy.

Take the force of the blow

So what of protection? To make the right decision, there are arrangements that inform students of the likely outcomes from their course, and a regime in place that guarantees that they experience the outputs that they were promised.

The problem is that the former looks increasingly shaky as a prediction mechanism, and the latter is a set of rights that look unenforceable when the incentives on universities are to make their promises vague, and when the government and regulators enable changes to be made against those promises.

Then if students feel they have made the wrong decision, students have a “cooling off” period and statutory support to switch providers. The problem there is that the former is only two weeks (and hopeless if you’ve already commenced your accommodation rental contract), and the latter duty has both been pretty much abandoned by the Office for Students, is England only and is irrelevant if you want to pause rather than switch.

Ah don’t be silly Jim. If a student on a practical course was suddenly plunged into six lonely months in lockdown, governments would adorn those people with cash and mental health support, surely? No government would assume they’ll pay rent on a house they’re not in and sit by while regulators blind-eye pivoting it to theory-only without consent. Would they?

Alternative providers

Then there’s the other options. Last year the general consensus seemed to be that for the well-off, the lack of international travel options made the prospect of a “gap yah” a write-off, whereas the lack of part-time work available in hospitality made the prospect of a year off for everyone else economically unviable.

Things are different this year. International travel is very much back on, and depending on who you listen to, the labour market is either experiencing the pains of rapid expansion or a profound change. Either way there are plenty of very well paid employment opportunities around in the sectors that students tend to work in – and if we were to be tipped back into lockdowns, furlough would likely apply.

This time last year I warned that in an ideal pandemic response, instead of responding to deep levels of student uncertainty with “ah you’ll be OK and the alts are worse”, we’d have found (or at least be campaigning for) some viable and valuable alternatives to traditional gap years.

Even more ideally, faced with the need to keep the economic model of UK HE going collectively we’d have taken steps to “de-risk” enrolling – both in relation to the viability of the provision/institution and the uncertainty built into the wider experience. But for whatever reason neither national governments, nor regulators, nor providers were able to do so. And as I say, we know what happened next.

We could offer meaningful protection – we could not hold students to contracts (rental or tuition fees) or offer better guarantees against changed provision. But ironically, even though the risks to universities and governments of doing so are lower, anything we do offer will look terrible for those that experienced last year. So it’s neither in government’s nor universities’ interests to make stronger guarantees or offer better protection against changes or restrictions – and so instead, the conveyor belt continues.

I hope this term pans out, I really do. But even if direct Covid risks don’t end up crystallising, there’s plenty of potential chaos around in higher education delivery. Yet here we are again, leaving almost all of the risk of enrolling onto a course on the way out of a pandemic on the shoulders of individual students. Would genuinely independent Information, Advice and Guidance advise anything other than a deferral for those that can?

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