Despite trepidation that university just won’t be the same, this is still a great year to go – so say politicians, career experts and academics. “I truly believe a good degree is worth the investment,” says Sam Gyimah, the former minister for universities, “for all those reasons that make a university education worth it” – better jobs, personal development, and sought-after, 21st-century skills.
Dire warnings of mass deferrals this year haven’t yet materialised. More 18-year-olds than ever – a record four in 10 – have applied this year, despite a population dip.
But for young people who have for years looked forward to traditional student rites of passage – heaving bars and packed lectures – campuses and study will feel different.
Students this year are worried, says Grace Joyce, community manager at online community The Student Room. They mostly fret about how they’ll socialise and live, asking: “Will they have a freshers’ week, how will accommodation work with social distancing?”
Even though universities will be different, Prof Sir Steve Smith, vice- chancellor and chief executive of the University of Exeter, believes they will adapt and cope. “We’ve made more changes in the way we deliver university education in the past four months than the preceding decade,” he says.
Come September, there will be new regulations and protocols – with universities busy contingency planning for local coronavirus spikes or a second wave. But don’t forget all this is not forever. “Students need to remember any restrictions and safety procedures are likely only to be in place during a relatively small period of their time doing a degree,” says Prof Julia Buckingham, chair of industry body Universities UK.
Here, we take your biggest concerns to the experts.
Undoubtedly different in the short term. There will likely be a mix of online and in-person teaching – known as blended learning – and lectures will be streamed. “You’d need a football pitch to fit in 500 students with distancing,” says Prof April McMahon (pictured), vice-president for teaching, learning and students at the University of Manchester. Some students also prefer digital formats – it’s easier for shy students to ask questions online, and many prefer studying in their own time.
Some universities such as Exeter will take a new approach – breaking up lectures into shorter video sections, with prompts and questions, followed by live online teaching sessions. Virtually all (97pc) institutions will offer some face-to-face teaching in groups, a Universities UK survey shows. “There will be small in-person teaching groups and lab and practical work on campus,” says Prof McMahon. “You can’t train midwives or dentists without them delivering babies or extracting teeth.”
And for some, lazy weekends might be a thing of the past. To meet demand for more and smaller group face-to-face teaching, some Russell Group universities are considering timetabling more lectures and seminars on Fridays, with some contemplating teaching on Saturdays.
Libraries and other study spaces will observe social distancing and numbers will be controlled, with some universities piloting booking systems. Exams will be mostly online. But universities are keen to promise all the trimmings of student life, with 87pc planning to hold sports, fitness and well-being activities.
Some institutions will provide face masks and a thermometer – expect hand sanitiser everywhere and one-way systems. “Students can still go for a coffee together,” says Prof McMahon. “You can study remotely but we don’t want students to miss out on the ‘chemistry’ of the place.”
Probably. Numbers of 18-year-olds have fallen to a low point after a 10-year decline, and next year will begin to rise once more. “Many universities are trying to grow,” says Mary Curnock Cook (pictured), former chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, “and will be even keener to engage home students. Next year it will be more competitive.”
Before Covid-19, universities experienced record demand from students outside the EU. But this academic year a British Council survey forecasts nearly 14,000 fewer enrolments from east Asia alone. More than half of overseas students say they are changing plans to study abroad, according to think tank QS. As a result there will be some wiggle room over grades, forecasts Curnock Cook – last year nearly half of all students were accepted with lower than required A-levels. “From my time at Ucas I know that when recruitment is tough, universities tend to be more lenient on missed grades and entry is less competitive.” Last week, Oxford University announced it would accept star pupils from struggling schools even if they underperform in their exams.
Forget bustling bars and rowdy clubs. But unless there’s a spike or local lockdown, students will still be arriving in person in September, and universities will offer face-to-face activities where possible, with appropriate social distancing.
“You might have to book a slot in a student society or sports fair, or in the bar – we’ll operate in the same way pubs are doing,” says Dr Tom Hoyland (pictured), associate dean (student experience), at the University of Hull. Student unions are planning social events that meet guidelines on distancing, and societies will run online activities – from salsa to baking to meditation – and in person where possible, with more use of outdoor spaces. Some unis are extending welcome week to a fortnight, to allow more events in smaller numbers. “We’ll see more events in small social groups rather than big get-togethers,” says Dr Hoyland. “We are hoping this will look like a traditional welcome week, just with precautions.”
Calamitous headlines about failing universities have put the wind up young people, with warnings that some will go bust.
Thirteen unnamed “less prestigious” institutions educating about five per cent of students might go under, a report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies reported in July. News like this spreads fear among prospective students, with almost a quarter saying they feared their chosen university would go bankrupt.
“But I absolutely cannot see a situation where any major university will fail,” says Vanessa Wilson (pictured above), chief executive of University Alliance, which represents professional and technical universities. “They are robust, well-run institutions that can survive this period. The Government has signalled a real sense of wanting to maintain stability in the sector.” In May, the Government announced a support package for universities which includes bringing forward £2.6 billion in tuition fee payments to help with cash flow.
There’s no doubt universities could be hurt by a steep drop in international students and other losses from accommodation and conferences, threatening billions in income. “It tends to be the less selective universities which are more likely at risk,” says Luke Sibieta (pictured left), research fellow at the IFS. “But before this crisis started universities were sitting on £45 billion of net assets – most universities will be OK.”
If a university is forced to close, students will be protected, says Prof Julia Buckingham (pictured below), president of Universities UK, and vice-chancellor of Brunel University London. Registered universities’ protection plans detail how students will be treated in the event of closure – possibly transferred to another institution.
“In a worst-case scenario some universities might find it difficult to weather the storm without support. We’ve been working with the Government to develop measures to address pressures the sector is facing,” adds Prof Buckingham.
Will universities come under government pressure to ditch certain degree subjects if they are short of cash?
Any government bail-out of a university might come with strings attached, said the Department for Education last month. Michelle Donelan, the universities minister, warned against “popular sounding courses with no real demand from the labour market” and subjects with jobs that pay so little that graduates don’t earn enough to pay back their loans. A report in May by the Policy Exchange, a think tank, suggested the Government use its financial leverage to weed out “weaker” courses.
“Courses that struggle could well close,” says Nick Hillman (pictured above), director of Hepi, an independent think tank. In recent years, the likes of London Metropolitan University and the University of Sunderland have wound down some courses, “and we could see a lot more of that”, he says.
Teaching staff on short-term contracts are also vulnerable. But there are safeguards – students are covered by a protection plan, which sets out what happens if a course does shut down. “Universities are autonomous,” adds Hillman. “But if they wind down a course, they usually ‘teach out’ their students over three years.”
The good news is that the Government has announced 9,000 new places for degrees in science, engineering and nursing courses for September. ‘‘These courses deliver some of the best outcomes for students and will also be integral to driving innovation,” says Donelan.
If you’re concerned your course might not stand the passing of time, there’s a wealth of data showing where courses lead and how much graduates earn (see discoveruni.gov. uk). Some paths are surprising – niche courses such as games design have healthy prospects. “I’m not saying every course is brilliant but our higher education is good across the board,” says Hillman. Creative industries – advertising, design, IT, publishing and more – are strong in the UK, even if they don’t pay the highest salaries, he says.
What if your parents suddenly lose their jobs during the academic year? The answer is not to worry. Loans are calculated on household earnings for the 2018/19 tax year. If parents’income drops by more than 15pc, students may qualify for a larger loan.
“You need to get your parents to apply to Student Finance England for a Current Year Income Assessment,” says Ruki Heritage (pictured), director of student experience at the University of Bedfordshire. “Your parent or sponsor can apply at any point until the last day of the academic year and SFE will make sure that you do not lose out.” At the end of the tax year, parents will be asked to give evidence of their actual household income and Studen Finance can recoup money if it has lent too much.
Students suddenly in dire financial straits can also apply to their university for discretionary hardship funds – usually a grant but sometimes a loan – via student services and will need to give details about rent, finance and loans.
If the pandemic means the economy takes a massive hit and jobs are going to be scarce, do young people really want to accrue a hefty student debt?
Traditionally, enrolment in higher education surges during a recession – because the alternative of unemployment is worse. Between late March and the end of June, applications rose 17pc year on year, and figures show fewer students plan to defer this year, compared to last.
“A degree is no guarantee of a better career, but getting qualified is always a way to give yourself options, especially now,” says Charlie Ball (pictured), head of higher education intelligence at Prospects. According to stats, graduates earn £34,000 and non-graduates £25,000 on average.
This year, degree apprenticeships and other work-based routes into learning have suffered, with 60pc of employers ceasing all new apprenticeships since the start of the crisis.
Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, has announced a £2 billion scheme to boost young people’s job opportunities, skills and apprenticeships, but there was no mention of degree apprenticeships.
So, for now, a degree might be the more viable option. “Many question whether university is good value,” says Ball. “But it’s a mistake to assume if you don’t go you’ll get a job or a qualification that leads to a job. And university is not all about the money.”
Many universities have been expanding so they can still guarantee a place in halls, despite social distancing. “Students will have as much choice as normal,” says a spokesman at the University of Sheffield.
Currently, some universities plan to create student social bubbles.
Staffordshire University will have fewer students in a flat and group them according to subject where possible. Outside visitors to the “bubble” will be discouraged. But rules might relax if national guidance eases. “We’re not going to police it – accommodation will be overseen by student reps,” says a spokesman.
University College London has said social gatherings or parties will not be permitted in halls and Aberystwyth University has banned students’ overnight guests.
In Leicester, where a local lockdown was imposed, students will be matched with others on the same course. “Flatmates will be able to travel, study, eat, socialise, play sport and shop in the city together with no social distancing,” says a spokesperson. At Sheffield, students will have to wear a mask in corridors, communal areas and for events.
Make sure you ask about any rent reductions, advises Hillary Gyebi-Ababio (pictured), NUS vice-president for higher education. “Amenities that might be included in rent – such as gyms – may operate differently,” she says.
Staying in student halls can be exorbitant and 20pc of all students now choose to live at home, with the creature comforts and savings it brings. Some experts predict this figure will rise, with students opting to do their first year online at home and travel in for face-to-face classes.
For the majority, however, going to university is still all about leaving home. And with extra cleaning in communal areas (will filthy kitchens be firmly consigned to the past?) and more use of outdoor spaces, universities are promising something close to normal, with the odd bit of virtual entertainment.
Any student planning to take A-levels in October should receive their results before Christmas, says Ofqual. This means they will probably be looking at a 2021 start date, points out Clare Marchant (pictured), the chief executive of Ucas. “There will be exceptions – some courses may accept late entrants,” she adds.
While most mainstream universities start in September and finish in the summer, some technical and professional universities offer January starts in degree courses such as teaching and nursing, so late applicants could enrol then. “It is possible to do an accelerated degree starting in January and rejoin the cohort in September, but only for a few exceptional courses,” explains Vanessa Wilson, of University Alliance.
Anybody with an unconditional offer in the bag needn’t worry, says Nicola Dandridge (pictured), chief executive of the Office for Students – they won’t be withdrawn. “We’re only banning universities from making unconditional offers where they’re not in students’ best interests,” she says. What they mean here are “conditional unconditional” offers – the type which only applies once a student has accepted the place, and the ban only applies from July 3 onwards. “We’re doing this during the pandemic because we don’t want students to feel pressured into accepting an offer that seems like it might give more certainty even though it might not fit their interests and aspirations.”
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