The impact of COVID-19 on university admissions

Across Wales, families are thinking about the future – whether that’s work, study or other aspects of their lives.

rob-e.jpg By Robert Evans, Strategic Engagement Manager, Qualifications Wales

Prospective students and their families will want to know how the coronavirus will affect progression into higher education (HE), as learners across the UK prepare to receive their calculated grades in August. Recognising the unprecedented times for all, UCAS Chief Executive, Clare Marchant, welcomes the decision to award grades this summer, saying:   

‘It’s essential for their future education and careers that students receive a set of fair and justifiable examination results.  

The best available evidence in the extraordinary circumstances we are all in will be used to calculate grades that will stay with students for years to come. 

For those applying to higher education, we expect them to be treated fairly and consistently, and universities and colleges to consider these grades in the same way as any qualifications from previous years.’ 

Over recent months, universities have responded at speed, to offer technology-enabled learning. The undergraduate experience next year will continue to include teaching via blended learning and who knows what the future will bring? Universities are putting the lessons learnt from their experiences so far to good use ahead of the 2020-21 academic year, embedding technological practice and as an unintended consequence better preparing students for the new world of work. 

Even before the current crisis, there were clear trends and pressures for higher education that were influencing admissions. One of the main drivers for change has been the significant reduction in the number of 18- year-olds over a number of years in the UK population. This has created a ‘buyers’ market’, changing the behaviour of the ‘buyer and seller’.   

One of the most contentious consequences of the fierce competition for students is the exponential increase in the number of unconditional offers (rising from 2,985 in 2013 to 137,700 in 2019); in 2019, almost 40% of applicants received an offer with an unconditional component. Following a huge increase in the number of unconditional offers at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, there has been continued pressure on universities to reduce the number of such offers, to ensure students do not feel pressured into making a quick decision, which may end up not being in their best interests.  

Universities continue to widen participation, with some of the most selective universities in the UK determined to widen access. Their responses include introducing a range of procedures and activities to compensate for educational inequalities, supporting learners from less affluent areas and those whose personal circumstances may have prevented them from reaching their full potential.  

The method that universities use to fill any places they still have available is called ‘clearing’. In recent years, it has become a more popular method of application, and it is estimated there could be as many as 50,000 places available this summer. UCAS continues to enhance clearing options, allowing learners to take advantage of new opportunities in clearing by having a more personalised offer, filtered to reflect a student’s individual interests and preferences.  

Whether students have a conditional or unconditional offer, universities now give them the opportunity to change their course after submitting their application. This means that students have more control over their application than ever before.  

Meanwhile, rumours abound that many learners have already decided to defer for a year, though UCAS say very few have actioned this to date. It is vital that students make a considered decision, weighing up the pros and cons of deferring. Obviously, the autumn term (and possibly the whole of the academic year) will be different from the normal university experience. However, it’s worth remembering that differentdoesn’t necessarily mean worse: it just means unlike what was expected. 

If students do decide to defer, they need to consider their options carefully, as the traditional opportunities for gap years such as internships, employment or travelling are likely to be constrained for the foreseeable future.   

With international student numbers likely to drop and the 18-year-old population at its lowest point before an upward trajectory in 2021, 2020 could be the best time ever to realise a university ambition. It’s likely that demand for students will be unprecedented, and universities have also stated that they will be ‘flexible’ with entries this year, mindful of the pandemic that we’re all living through 

Engaging in conversation with universities, it’s clear to me that the intersection of demography and opportunities has never been so favourable for students to access higher educationUniversities will be awaiting the next intake of learners with anticipation, but for learners in Wales, there are great opportunities ahead.  

Published 18 June 2020