Year 12, and the perils of applying to university during a pandemic

This year's university applicants have faced difficulties. But for Katherine Lloyd Clark, it is next year we will see the full impact of Covid-19 on A levels.

What an August this has been for Year 13 and all their teachers and families! – but the student recruitment crisis is now facing the current Year 12 in earnest.

It is now six months since these pupils entered lockdown. They have lost the classroom experience, the fun that makes the lower sixth a unique experience and their turn on the merry-go-round of UCAS fairs and university open days. Not all will see it this way, but Year 13 have had very fair prospects for university entry this year, especially if they are Scottish.

And Year 13 have had very little to do compared with the year below. Year 12 pupils have been guinea pigs in our HE experiments with digital student recruitment and in September they will be hamsters in the wheel of exam preparation. They will have had far less face-to-face teaching behind them than Year 13 and will have mountains to climb in terms of catch up – if they go back at all that is.

For pupils, parents, teachers and advisers, it promises to be a spectacularly challenging September. It is extraordinary that a few tiny tweaks to the delivery of geography, geology and environmental science A-Level are all that Ofqual or government so far think necessary to support the situation.

What universities can’t do online

Digital delivery of university guidance has been an enormous asset during Covid-19. The creativity and commitment of the HE sector under extraordinarily demanding circumstances has been inspiring. Whoever would have imagined that we could deliver a virtual Year 12 Residential without a campus stay in sight? How many more prospective students will we reach all over the world with new online subject talks and taster lectures not involving a single car or air mile?

Online recruitment can be brilliant but it brings into sharp focus the things for which digital delivery is no use at all. Nothing can replace the physical campus visit, to experience the look, feel and atmosphere of an institution and its real world (not carefully edited virtual) location. I could pay for a hundred Sunak Specials this August if I had a fiver for every time I’ve heard a student ambassador say, in a virtual event, that they chose their university “because of the atmosphere on the open day”.

Not especially tactful if you have never been to an on-campus event and may never do so if we have a second wave of Covid. Live Q&A sessions are of limited value when it takes two hours to answer the query. Perhaps AI will help with this soon but subject-specific expertise is hard to train into virtual counsellors and chat bots. Extensive academic engagement beats slick production values every time during a virtual event but can we rely on this when HE teaching staff time is under unspeakable pressure?

The forgotten cohort

If Year 12’s experience of university preparation has been mixed so far, from September, it could be downright unfair. Will they receive any special mitigation for the 2021 results period given the storm around Year 13’s results? Or will they be the forgotten cohort we fail to remember as we try to forget the pain of 2020?

And then there is the differential impact of lockdown on schools and colleges. There have been quiet inequalities in access to the best advice and guidance for years, of course, but Covid may have opened chasms between the opportunities of well-resourced, well-connected schools and those that are more stretched, or less well equipped.

Early application and school support

At Exeter, we have noticed over several years’ monitoring of admissions data that applicants from independent schools tend to apply earlier than those from the state sector. The trend in later application from state pupils is growing more marked over time.

Of course, we treat all applications by the 15 January UCAS equal consideration date fairly but the support students receive to make those applications is anything-but-equal. That is why we are sceptical, at Exeter, about the extensive use of the personal statement as a selection tool. Those who apply earlier generally receive offers sooner, allowing them to focus fully on their studies, target the grades they need for their preferred institution and reach informed decisions on where to choose as firm and insurance: more time to think and prepare. Those who apply later often experience less intensively managed progression.

Where will Covid leave less supported Year 12s by the relevant UCAS deadlines this year? If more of the current Year 13 defer or decide to withdraw and take autumn exams, pressure on places for 2021 could increase for selective courses or institutions and there will be yet more challenges for the current Year 12.

Access to strong, tactically informed, admissions guidance is not a fixed binary between state and independent. There are wonderful examples of consortia and school-HE partnerships ensuring that state pupils receive the very best HE preparation. There are independent schools which could seriously pull their socks up (I could give the HMC a list).

Equity in admissions

I do hope, though, that Covid does not delay our search for better ways to identify the potential to succeed in HE for all learners, under-represented or not. I hope it does not delay too long further debate on an even more equitable and streamlined application process.

I hope, most of all, that 2021 entrants do not arrive at their chosen institution puzzled, bemused, shocked or surprised at what they find next year. I hope that they have a chance, somehow, sometime, before they arrive with pots, pans and a new duvet cover, to find that sense of ‘fit’ that starts the real excitement of higher education and will mean, for them, a happy end to a painful journey.

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