For countless British school leavers, the emotional maelstrom of the past few months didn’t end on Thursday when A-level results were announced.
This weekend, many Year 13 students are grappling with the dilemma of what to do next. Accept a university offer, even though they might miss out on the full student experience because of the pandemic? Or defer or reject a place, until some semblance of normality returns?
With little or no face-to-face teaching at universities until 2021, the prospect of starting an expensive degree just doesn’t add up for some students.
There are also fears that all the fun of starting university, and opportunities to make friends, will be missing because freshers’ week and other social events have been cancelled or postponed.
Orla McAndrew, 18, had already deferred her place at the University of York when the pandemic started. She planned to take a gap year travelling and start her English literature degree in 2021. But Covid scuppered this dream.
At first, she considered starting her course this year, but ultimately has opted to defer as planned.
“It’s been very strange and stressful because I want to make sure I’m making the right decision for my future,” Orla says. “I’m paying a lot of money and I want the experience I’ve always associated with university.”
Her main concern is the uncertainty. “With freshers’ week cancelled and most courses online, how would I be able to meet new people and make friends? And not having that face-to-face support during the transition from A-levels to university also worries me.”
Instead, Orla has found a job in a local café and alongside working will spend the year practising her writing skills, a career in journalism in her sights.
During lockdown, she co-founded a website for aspiring journalists and completed several online training courses. “I’m hoping to use this year to try a bit of everything to find out what kind of journalism I really want to do.”
Orla is not alone in worrying about starting university in the middle of a pandemic. At the height of lockdown, some polls found that more than 40 per cent of Year 13 students were considering deferring.
Grace Joyce, community manager at The Student Room, the UK’s biggest student website, says that figure has probably fallen since universities clarified how they planned to run their courses. Almost all will offer some face-to-face teaching.
But deferral remains a big issue. “Conversations now tend to be more focused towards the impact on the social aspects, including the ability to make friends and have a ‘normal’ freshers’ week,” Joyce says.
Courteney Sheppard, from Ucas, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, says applications for places are actually up by 1.6 per cent on last year. But many students and parents are concerned: Ucas received 50,000 extra calls during lockdown from people seeking support and advice in light of the pandemic.
Sheppard says it’s crucial that parents help their children make the best decision for them, but they need not be worried. “Universities and colleges have been doing everything they can to ensure students will receive an excellent and safe learning experience.”
Anyone considering deferring or rejecting an offer should contact their chosen university before making a decision. Some – but not all – will still allow students with an offer to defer, even at this late stage. And some will allow students to change courses (where possible) if their original choice no longer feels right.
The University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) is allowing students with offers to defer, but the vice-chancellor, Professor Graham Baldwin, doesn’t recommend it.
“While the student experience will undoubtedly be different this year, universities are doing everything in their power to put in place measures to ensure the student experience remains as well-rounded and fulfilling as possible,” he says. “If you do take your place at university this year, you could also be making a great investment in your future, as you are likely to graduate in a stronger position once the job market picks up again.”
He urges parents to talk through the pros and cons of all the options. “It’s very easy for students to be swayed by the thought of not being able to attend as many Welcome Week activities, lectures and societies in person, especially when it’s such a new and exciting experience,” he says.
Prof Baldwin says that students might want to bear in mind that if they reject an offer, they will need to reapply in 2021, when they might find it tougher to secure a place on the course they want. “The number of 18-year-olds has increased this year, so this will mean competition for university places in the future could be even greater,” he says.
Olivia Dark, an 18-year-old school leaver from Bournemouth, has opted to start her psychology degree at Cardiff University in the autumn as planned.
“I’d mentally prepared to go this year and have no idea what I would do in a gap year,” she says. “I would rather progress through the education system while I am still in it, so I wouldn’t feel demotivated to go back to studying in a year’s time.”
It’s important for her to go through university at the same time as her friends. “I might feel distant or excluded from them if they were all at university and I had not gone. And I feel ready to leave school and home and start a new chapter of my life, especially after being stuck at home for three months!”
Olivia understands that her first year might be very different from usual. But Cardiff University has reassured her that most teaching will be the same, albeit with social distancing in place, with only large lectures delivered online.
The decision is not always as clear-cut. Life and parenting coach Judy Reith says it’s important that parents understand how awful the pandemic has been for teenagers on the brink of one of the most exciting times of their lives. “Young people have been gagging for the all-round student experience,” she says.
Parents can help by going through all the possible scenarios with their children. For example, dreams of travelling the world on a gap year will be difficult and finding a job might be challenging. But don’t impose your own beliefs or burden them with your worries.
“You might want to be supportive, kind, empathetic and understanding, which will help you listen and keep the connection with them,” Reith suggests. “If they feel heard and understood, it’s far more likely they will take on board your views.”
Do your own research, too. “For example,” says Reith, “will they really forget all their maths if they wait a year? They need our support, not our fear-fuelled opposition. Ultimately, it’s their life that will be most affected by this next chapter, not ours.”