Applications to universities in the UK have increased during the COVID-19 lockdown. UCAS, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, has reported a 1.6% increase from last year, and over 40% of all UK 18-year-olds have now applied to university.
This rise may come as a surprise. The university experience for those starting in autumn 2020 will be very different. Some teaching will take place online. Freshers’ week may turn into weeks or even months: universities may look to avoid crowding by spreading out events and reducing attendee numbers. Student unions will be planning events that are both in person and virtual.
However, there are a number of reasons why young people may be choosing to apply to university for next year, including an uncertain job market and a lack of other opportunities. Furthermore, my research shows that the things that really matter to new university students are feeling like they belong, the academic staff they work with, and how teaching is delivered. Even under changed circumstances, universities can still meet these needs.
In recent years, students have been increasingly likely to choose clearing – when applicants are matched to unfilled places – as their entry point to the application cycle. The reasons for this move towards later applications include concerns about tuition fees and uncertainty about making future choices before school studies are completed. Now, though, there may be additional reasons.
There is evidence to suggest that during recessions, education becomes a choice for many school leavers who are facing unemployment. The economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic is a long way from being fully understood, but the daily news reports about large and trusted high-street retailers cutting jobs and closing stores send a strong message to school leavers that the job market may be difficult.
Similarly, dreams of travelling the world on a gap year to Australia, New Zealand and other destinations are looking unlikely, with travel limited or discouraged and borders closed. The choice for many students will be to look for education options to improve future employment prospects, and hope they can ride out the recession with the safety net of a place in full time education.
There is also a risk that students who put off applying until 2021 will be competing for places with A-level students whose results are not impacted by the government decision to abandon exams and give predicted grades.
Rite of passage
Moving away from home for university is a rite of passage for many young people. Popular TV show Fresh Meat shows students seeking not just education but the “full student experience”. For many, this means living in student accommodation, face-to-face interactions with tutors and peers, and joining clubs and societies.
For students starting in 2020, the whole experience will be new. Most will never have been to university, so their experience will be shaped by the communication and perceptions they have before they arrive.
My own research on the transition from school to university shows that for students, they are more satisfied with their university experience when they feel like they belong and have developed a good sense of who they are within their social and academic contexts on their journey to becoming a graduate.
“Being, belonging and becoming” are central ideas that make a difference to the student experience. The establishment of online communities to augment face-to-face interactions will be extremely important to students who are in transition from school to university. This enables them to form social connections with peers and tutors. These online communities can be a source of information and provide an opportunity for affiliation and belonging.
My research also found that students value working with academics and how teaching is delivered. Students reported that teaching from experts in their field both in practice and research made the teaching authentic, especially when assessment was tailored towards knowledge and skills required in employment.
In 2020, this will be achieved through the content created for students that will be delivered both in person and virtually. Students are likely to have access to more resources this year than ever before. They will be able to access these materials in their own time and at their own pace, giving greater flexibility to how they access their studies.
This rise in applications provides a glimmer of hope for universities at a time when their efforts are focused on ensuring that university campuses are COVID-safe. At the same time, they must reassure prospective students that their experience will still be valuable.