Why can’t the sector get in tune about September?

Warm words and talk of unique experiments are not enough to reassure university applicants that are facing an uncertain first term. Michelle Morgan calls for harmony.

Back in April, Ofqual stated that this year’s A level qualifications – that would ordinarily be based on examinations only – would be assessed on a range of metrics including mocks, coursework and predicted grades.

Concerns were voiced immediately about the practicality of teacher assessments , the effective ranking of students as this is an activity schools are not used to doing, and the potential increase in appeals. But this was a national approach to a problem facing the whole education system. It was not left to every exam board, and every school, to do their own thing.

Business as unusual

When this announcement was made, the Covid19 pandemic was continuing to advance in the UK. As lockdown continued, it became clear that a “business as usual” start for universities in September was not going to happen. Increasingly, there was discussion by universities about starting the next academic year online for new and returning students, but little guidance was provided by government on how the sector should or could proceed.

Many commentators, including myself, started to anticipate that all this could lead to applicants, who were holding offers to go to university this coming academic year, contemplating deferring. One of the first pieces of research to be produced on how the Covid-19 pandemic was affecting applicants was a HEPI and YouthSight survey of 500 applicants which found that one-third now felt less confident that they would get into their chosen university, and only half of applicants felt confident that their predicted grades would reflect their final grade.

Since then, there have been numerous polls suggesting that substantial numbers of applicants would rather defer for a year than start their studies online in September and miss out the “promised rite of passage” into university that includes activities such as Freshers week.

Warm words don’t cut it

It is understandable that senior sector leaders and commentators want to “talk up” the higher education market in the UK in the hope of creating stability and confidence. It is quite routine to hear comments on social media and in articles advising that “it would be much better for an applicant to come to university than be stuck at home with parents” or “it is better to do a degree than potentially face unemployment and not be able to take a gap year due to travel restrictions as a result of Covid-19”.

Mary Curnock Cook, in her piece in the Times, argues passionately about applicants not deferring saying that:

Once there, the 2020 intake will be part of an admittedly slightly experimental, but nonetheless unique, cohort participating in a shift in education practice unlike anything seen in universities for centuries”.

But do applicants really want to be part of an experiment of uncertainty when they have been promised certainty? Do they want to pay £9,250 a year on graduation to not live the dream they have been expecting, or to incur costs for accommodation and facilities they cannot use? Universities are now hoist by their own marketing departments.

It is also reported that many universities are telling applicants that they can only defer on medical grounds, or that there are limited deferral spaces. If they do not take up their place this year, they will have to reapply. And as there are expected to be many more applicants in 2021-22, they may not get a place, especially as overseas applications could be sharply up. This feels at its best, a bit like coercion.

Deferral may be for the best

These comments and approaches fail to manage and support the applicant’s expectations and needs which is essential in higher education. Jim Dickinson’s piece on Wonkhe, “should students take the gamble” highlights the challenges faced by many students on why they may want to defer is equally applicable to applicants. They include:

  • Some may be living at home and will commute and have, or family members have, an underlying health so they need to be very cautious about “blended”.
  • Some have limited resources (e.g. accessible equipment for online learning and 24/7 internet access) and may not have quiet space in their home to study – and may want to defer.
  • Some have to work to supplement their income to afford to study at university. If part time work is not available, they may feel they cannot afford to go.

And critically, we cannot assume that applicants – pre or post Covid 19 – are competent digital learners. A recent report highlights that applicants on entry to university may be “social” digital natives, but are not all “learning” digital natives. The thought of having to learn in a way that applicants are not used to, could be daunting and potentially off-putting.

Piecemeal policymaking

Universities also need to be mindful that applicants will be talking to friends who may have applied to other providers, and will absolutely be comparing the advice and guidance of their chosen university with others. They are also likely to be talking to parents about what they should do.

We are currently two-and-a-half months away before the start of the “normal” academic year, and there are still no sector principles or an agreement on how to approach the start of term to create confidence and stability amongst applicants and students – such as a staggered phased return of existing and new students. Piecemeal guidance is being drip fed to the sector by the Department of Education and the Office for Students, and we have universities announcing different approaches to the start of the academic year. Applicants and their families must be perplexed and confused by this approach. If we do not take the time to get the start of our new students right, it will demoralise them and impact on their experience, and will affect our retention rates which will affect our income.

We don’t know, as Megan Brown argues, whether some of the promises being made will actually be deliverable. And as Megan Ball suggests, fundamentally, universities should not be making promises that cannot be kept.

At the moment, the sector is an orchestra where the four sections (mission groups), and the individual musicians within each section (universities), are all playing a different tune and doing their own thing – creating disharmony where there should be consonance.

To protect UK higher education, we need to not only play the same music, but be on the same page and play together. When we start doing this we might then be able to create the stability and confidence that enables applicants and students to feel that starting their degree, or returning to it, is safe.

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