Most students want start of academic year to be delayed

More than two-thirds of prospective university students back a delayed start to the year to secure more face-to-face teaching, while almost one in four (23%) fear that the university they wish to study at this year could go bust because of the COVID-19 crisis, warns a University and College Union (UCU) survey of prospective university students.

Half (49%) fear that damage caused by funding cuts because of the pandemic will negatively impact on their education and 71% back a delay to the start of term.

UCU General Secretary Jo Grady said: “Given the impact this uncertainty is having on students, it is now critical that government agrees to provide increased financial backing to the sector. Students need to be confident that they will get a high-quality education, despite the hugely damaging impact of the pandemic.”

YouthSight polled 516 students who have applied to university this academic year (2020-21), of whom 87% are living in the UK, and found:

• 23% were moderately or very worried that the university they wish to attend will go bust (not have enough money to operate) because of the crisis (9% were very worried).

• 49% were moderately or very worried that the university they wish to attend will need to make cuts because of the COVID-19 crisis that will negatively impact their education (23% were very worried).

• 71% were moderately or very supportive of moving the start of their first year of university to a later time if it meant they could have more face-to-face rather than online teaching (52% were very supportive).

The survey was published on the same day that the UK government published guidance on the reopening of higher education buildings and campuses, which gives clear encouragement to universities to continue to deliver many classes online.

The guidance advises universities to consider “how to encourage new ways of delivering in-person teaching and assessment that adhere to guidelines on social distancing, so that all students can receive a high-quality educational experience in a way that protects both students and staff”.

It leaves it to universities to “identify the appropriate mix of online and face-to-face content for each subject, reflecting what will maximise learning as well as supporting more vulnerable learners, and enabling the provider as a whole to minimise transmission risk”.

In line with this guidance, Universities UK published “Principles for emerging from lockdown”, also on 3 June, and in an accompanying statement, the president of Universities UK and vice-chancellor of Brunel University London, Professor Julia Buckingham, said: “Universities will provide as much in-person learning, teaching, support services and extra-curricular activities as public health advice and government guidance will support.”

There would be “carefully planned alternatives for students where parts of the university experience may be difficult to deliver in-person – such as large lectures”.

However, there remains uncertainty over how many students will seek to defer entry this year in the hope that normal face-to-face provision will resume the following academic year. Deferrals would cause a drop in income for universities, which rely on tuition fees of £9,250 (US$11,700) per domestic student, and higher rates for international students, for a large part of their funding.

Prospective students are anxious

Another survey just released found that only two-thirds of students preparing to go into UK higher education this autumn feel reassured by information they have received from universities they have applied to.

Prospective students are anxious and confused over a government U-turn over when they will receive their A-level grades, and worried about the replacement of exams with grading by teachers, according to the researchers.

The Impact of the Coronavirus Pandemic on Students Preparing for University in 2020 report from UK-based digital marketing specialists Pickle Jar Communications was based on 326 responses to a survey of a cross-section of students representing state schools, grammar schools, sixth form colleges and independent schools. It was also supported by 30-minute interviews with 26 students across the UK.

Comments from students ranged from “All universities have been in touch with fond wishes, but none have any meaningful or clear information” to “One university invited me to choose my accommodation, despite it only being my insurance”.

Funding black hole

Last month a London Economics report for UCU warned of a £2.5 billion (US$3.2 billion) funding black hole as a result of a drop in the number of students coming to university in September. This would mean a £6 billion hit to the wider economy and the loss of around 60,000 jobs, the report warned.

UCU has called on the government to step in and underwrite funding for universities to protect the UK’s academic capacity and provide stability for the sector. The union said students needed to be confident that their institution was not at risk and the quality of their education was guaranteed.

Grady of UCU said: “Without increased support, our research has shown that thousands of jobs could go in a £6 billion shock to the economy. While university staff and students will bear the brunt of this, higher education is also important to many local businesses around the UK who will be fatally damaged by this contraction.

“No university should jeopardise the safety of staff or students to try and offer a more traditional university experience in the current climate. Government needs to guarantee funding so institutions are able to make decisions which put the welfare of their staff and students first, and plan for a delayed start if this is the safest course of action.”

Nic Mitchell is a British-based freelance journalist and PR consultant who runs De la Cour Communications and blogs about higher education for the European Universities Public Relations and Information Officers’ Association, EUPRIO, and on his website. He also provides English-language communication support for European universities and specialist higher education media.