COVID-19: How Are University Admissions Affected?

August 21, 2020 Chris Callaghan

In light of the UK government u-turn on GCSE and A-Level results, we are seeing an unprecedented situation for the education sector which could lead to a review into the handling of exams cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Last week saw A-Level pupils receive their grades which were based on teacher's estimates combined with an algorithm agreed by Ofqual and the Department for Education. This decision to use the algorithm has since been changed, with A-Level results now based on teacher estimates and the algorithm being scrapped. 

However, with A-level exams cancelled for students in Further Education, and results now based on teacher estimates (centre-assessed grades) instead of official examinations for the first time ever, it will have a massive impact on university admissions for the 2020/21 academic year, as well as how this year's results are viewed for pupils in later life.

Universities originally faced an estimated £2.5 billion tuition fee loss in 2021. However, now the problems could be more complex, since the decision to use 'centre-assessed grades' could result in significant overall grade inflation, resulting in universities admissions imbalance. Universities will be looking at a larger intake due to the grade inflation which leads to increased costs, specifically when accounting for social distancing measures which will be required.

So how are universities shifting their normal practices in response to COVID-19?

N.B. Please be aware that due to the uncertain nature of the coronavirus pandemic, some of this information may change.

The State of University Admissions 

Many students are worried about the stability of their applications and offers for the 2020/21 academic year. However, the UK government is ensuring that these offers are safeguarded, but some universities are looking into requesting pupils defer for a year to help manage the intake. 

On 23rd March, the government asked providers in England to stop making unconditional offers for two weeks. This was then extended to 20th April. These extensions are also being pursued in both Wales and Northern Ireland. 

UCAS themselves allowed more time for prospective students to understand these changes and to consider their options. They extended the May undergraduate offer deadlines by two weeks. 

Flexible Admissions

A flexible admissions process may help to mitigate any damage from the current pandemic. This means the traditional entry strategies for universities (mainly the September entry point) can be altered slightly. For example, the usual September enrollment can be moved to January. 

A very small number of institutions practise this enrollment time and it could be used to ease the impact of a rush towards admissions. Universities can also consider lowering the English language requirements for non-UK students. 

In an interview, Vincenzo Raimo, an expert on transnational education, said:

“It’s not about lowering standards, which would be the accusation. It’s about taking good students who haven’t had the opportunity to meet those requirements and supporting them as best we can while they’re on their course to improve their study skills and English language.” 

This would hopefully increase the number of non-UK students considering the UK as the place to study.

Support for International Students

In light of the coronavirus pandemic, measures to support international students have also been drafted by the government. It’s worried that foreign students will either not view the UK as a viable option or simply want to stay in their own countries for study. This will guarantee a big hit to university funds. For example, it’s expected that UK universities will lose out on £460 million from the drop in east-Asian students.

At the British Council’s Going Global online event, held on 5th June, it was stated by Universities Minister, Michelle Donelan MP that ‘ the UK’s world-leading universities remain open to international students, and the Government is working as a priority to make processes as flexible and easy as possible to allow them to study at UK institutions under the current circumstances.’

A number of arrangements are to be put in place, such as flexibility on visa regulations, as well as announcing the creation of the position of International Education Champion. This position has been created to help boost the numbers of international students who choose the UK to study. Donelan went on to say:

Supporting international students is one of our top priorities and we are working hard to make sure we are as flexible as possible and make processes as easy as they can be, including around current visa regulations.

It was mentioned that international trade is seen as crucial to the UK’s economic recovery post-covid and so, there is an emphasis on the education sector playing an important role. Education exports are currently valued at around £21 billion per year. These aid in developing international trade and collaboration, which is in itself, crucial to the success of UK universities. 

On top of the visa flexibility, there is also the addition of a new points-based Student route and Graduate route (to be launched in 2021). These will help international students with a degree to stay and work in the UK at any level for two years.

Maintaining a Fair Admissions Process

There’s been a widespread hit to all facets of university life, be it the admissions process, accommodation renting or even hiring foreign employees. Universities UK recently released a proposition of measures to be taken to ensure stability through this time. Part of this covers ensuring security and fairness for students during the admissions process, which is likely to come under strain.

They’re proposing a ‘fair admissions agreement’, which are a set of rules and principles aimed at placing student interest at the core of the admissions process.

The fair admissions agreement can be seen through these key practices:

"A fair admissions system should strive to deliver the best outcome for the applicant, regardless of whether this is also the best outcome for the higher education provider."

  • Do not make unconditional offers.
  • Do not make significant changes to the application process.
  • Practise flexibility in the admissions decision-making process by taking into account the context of a potential student’s application.
  • Continue progress towards any objectives set up to improve the student experience and most importantly, access to students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

UCAS is also working to support this agreement. It's looking to extend deadlines within applications to give potential students more time to decide and provide high-quality advice to ensure full understanding. 

Similarly, UCAS is also creating contextualised messages that speak of the benefits of entering higher education in 2020, in an effort to increase COVID-affected admissions numbers. This is all bolstered by providing contextual analysis to ensure confidence in the qualification awarding process, which may have been low because of the lack of examinations this year and unfamiliarity with this process.

The admissions process is just one area that the current coronavirus pandemic is affecting. COVID-19 is truly shaking up the entirety of the education system in the UK, with institutions suffering or adapting across the board. 

The Impact of COVID-19 on Education

In our whitepaper, you’ll discover the state of education leading up to the pandemic, as well as the immediate impact and what’s being done to mitigate damage. We also delve into what the future of education may look like after this period and more.

To get your copy, click the link below.

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