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Making big decisions in an information vacuum

  • 10 June 2020
  • By Paul Humphreys

This guest blog has been kindly written for us by Paul Humphreys, Founder and CEO at StudentCrowd and a Member of the Higher Education Commission.

HEPI readers will be painfully aware of the myriad of issues facing university decision makers that require their immediate attention. Whether it’s implementing their safety net policy, supporting current students’ mental health, tackling this year’s financial deficit or adjusting planning in light of student numbers control. All this is set within a context of limited guidance where no one really knows the best course of action.

The focus of this article is not, however, on the decisions made by university leaders.

Instead, our attention is on students in the final throes of making one of the biggest decisions of their lives so far. In a normal recruitment cycle, prospective students are able to scrutinise every aspect of the university through a wide range of resources. We know from UCAS’s New Applicant Survey that prospective students rely on open days as one of the primary mechanisms for making their final university selection.

The importance of open days is revealed by the statements we hear from current students: There’s nothing quite like…

  • ‘seeing campus for yourself’
  • ‘hearing from real students’
  • ‘talking to your actual lecturers’
  • ‘looking around the accommodation’

Our research shows that 75% of universities are currently advertising online open days. We applaud universities for the speed at which these features have been rolled out. We are keeping this list of online open days updated for as long as it’s required. It’s worth noting that physical open days have been refined over hundreds of iterations. The next step with online open days is to develop best practice as soon as possible. The best resource I’ve seen on this topic is written by Aimee Kleinman & Tim Landucci (SMRS).

The UCAS New Applicant Survey also tells us that ‘online reviews of universities by other students’ are the second most trusted source in shaping prospective students’ decisions. It is the source that prospective students use to find out ‘what it’s really like’ at the institution. At StudentCrowd we have seen students talk about their lockdown experience of university and it’s fair to say the picture so far is mixed. Here’s an example from a satisfied student:

The truth is (and this is coming from a review platform) current students cannot tell us what university life will feel like in September 2020. Nobody knows what it will be like when universities will have had more time to prepare alternative teaching methods and put student support in place. Nobody has experienced a September like 2020.

Given this, we started to run a poll to discover what prospective students are feeling. The qualitative responses are rich with insight:

Question: What concerns you most about starting university in September?

  • ‘How classes will take place (if they will be completely online) as well as if I’ll be able to travel to the UK if the situation there doesn’t improve soon.’
  • ‘Not being able to live in my chosen university, and lack of social experience i.e. freshers.’
  • ‘How classes will take place (if they will be completely online) as well as if I’ll be able to travel to the UK if the situation there doesn’t improve soon.’
  • ‘The level of interaction between academic staff and students – will there be lectures, tutorials etc. as before? What will the students be paying for and will it be worth the money?’

The current level of uncertainty has created an information vacuum. We decided to go out and collate all of the information available to help prospective students make decisions for 2020/21. Specifically, we sought out information on universities’ plans to run their courses in September, we identified three broad categories. These were:

  1. confirmation that courses will run in September/October (some with a slightly adjusted start date);
  2. preparations being made to run courses, but awaiting government guidance/further information before making a final commitment; and
  3. not yet specified, meaning there was little or no information about what the university was planning or thinking for their September delivery.

All of the information we gathered was taken directly from universities’ own websites. A full list of the most up-to-date positions can be found in the university responses to Covid-19 article. The primary use of this data is to help 17/18 year-olds, but we hope you find the following analysis novel and helpful to you in your planning for 2020/21.

We published the first full data set on Monday, 1st June (see figures in brackets in the table below). By Tuesday, 9th June there had been a notable shift in those confirming their delivery for September/October (see figure in front of the brackets in the table below). This gives some indication of the pace of change in this evolving picture.

 Confirmed September / October startPreparing for September / October startNot yet Specified
All universities76% (52%)16% (34%)8% (14%)
Russell Group95.8% (66.2%)4.2% (33.8%)
Universities Alliance88.2% (47.1%)5.9% (41.2%)5.9% (11.7%)
Million+73.6% (63.2%)21.1% (26.3%)5.3% (10.5%)
1994 Group60% (30%)40% (70%)
GuildHE50% (30%)20% (30%)30% (40%)
Cathedrals Group57.1% (28.6%)14.3% (42.8%)28.6% (28.6%)

Table 1: Breakdown of UK universities’ intentions for course delivery in 20/21 as of 9th of June

The good news for prospective students is that the majority of universities have committed to, or are planning to, run their undergraduate courses in 20/21. The picture is mixed, however, across the university groups for all sorts of practical, financial and market position reasons. We’d love to hear your thoughts on this data, please share your insights in the comments section below.

The second area we know prospective students are interested in is the style of teaching delivery. Universities’ responses to this fell broadly into three categories:

  1. completely online for the start of term;
  2. blended (including dual delivery paths): a mix of online lectures and face-to-face small group delivery; and
  3. not yet specified, meaning no clear indication on what types of teaching methods will be used in September.

As noted above, universities’ positions are constantly evolving. The figures in brackets below show the position on 1st June with those in front of the brackets showing the position as of 9th June.

 BlendedOnlineNot yet Specified
All universities63.3% (28%)2% (4%)34.7% (68%)
Russell Group83.3% (37.5%)16.7% (62.5%)
Universities Alliance52.9% (17.6%)47.1% (82.4%)
Million+73.7% (42.1%)(5.3%)26.3% (52.6%)
1994 Group60% (20%)(10%)40% (70%)
GuildHE50% (10%)50% (90%)
Cathedrals Group57.1% (21.4%)42.9% (78.6%)

Table 2: Breakdown of teaching delivery mode for course delivery in 20/21 as of 10am 4th of June

Overall, 65.3% of universities have made a statement about their mode of teaching next year, with 34.7% still to do so. This data largely speaks for itself with the overarching message being that the majority of universities plan to be open, but more than a third are yet to specify how they will be delivering their teaching. The picture will become even more fragmented when we go to the course level.

At the best of times, it’s a tricky process to select and apply for your course, university & accommodation. In 2020, with all the uncertainty, students are asking, ‘how will my course be taught?’, ‘will the campus be open?’, ‘how has student accommodation changed?’ We agree with the Office for Students’ (OfS) call to universities to give more detail on university life in September but, at the same time, we also feel the pain of university leaders having lost all of the ‘normal’ mechanisms to draw on to make decisions.

If you want to talk to StudentCrowd about this data or engage with us on this research, please contact us at support@studentcrowd.com.

The data is refreshed multiple times a day, so please send through any updates using the email above.

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