This blog was kindly contributed by Ben Jordan, Head of Policy at UCAS.
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In many ways, the 2020 entry cycle feels a lot like 2012 – every day there is a ‘Will they? Won’t they?’ story in the press regarding student progression. At present, the current data is reassuring – UCAS’ 30th June deadline data shows the highest ever application rate from UK 18-year-olds and there is evidence that individuals used the lockdown period to apply to higher education, with a 17 per cent year-on-year increase in new applicants during this time. The Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) results also saw a record entry rate for this point in the cycle, with 23.9 per cent of Scottish 18-year-olds accepted to higher education.
We are now approaching the pinnacle of the cycle – Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) results day in Confirmation and Clearing – and, as in 2012, we are expecting heightened public interest on the day and the weeks that follow as students start to enrol.
Universities will soon be making admissions decisions on a unique set of students – students who have calculated grades and have been outside of a formal education setting since March through no fault of their own. They will need to consider how they assess these students and how they make admissions decisions that are reflective of the current environment. As such, UCAS fully supports the Universities UK (UUK) fair admissions practices for 2021/22, which encourage flexibility and a focus on contextualised assessment. Universities have students at the heart and will do all they can to ensure the COVID-19 cohort is not disproportionately impacted.
Below we highlight five areas that will be front and centre for those responsible for bringing students into universities – admissions, recruitment and marketing.
What is the role of contextual admissions?
Disadvantaged students are the paramount consideration for admissions practitioners and COVID-19 has only upped the ante for this cohort. On the one hand, the data remains promising. For the first time, over a quarter (25.4 per cent) of young people from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, as measured by POLAR, had applied by 30 June this year. On the other hand, deferrals have increased for this group (the only quintile where we saw this effect), albeit by a relatively small number – 60 students.
The data which UCAS sends to universities helps turn an ‘applicant’ into a person; the receiving university understands more about who the individual is, their background and the challenges they face and have overcome. This information is provided alongside details about a student’s gender, postcode, personal characteristics (e.g. care experience) and school performance information. This all combines to paint a fuller picture of their potential to succeed in higher education.
This picture is more important than ever for universities and 2020 is absolutely the time for contextual admissions. We are encouraged by the UUK admissions principles that encourage greater use of contextual admissions in this COVID era, but we are encouraging universities to go even further. This year we have enriched the contextual information we supply about students via our Multiple Equality Measure to create MEM2020. This incorporates Free School Meals (FSM) data, something the sector has sought for years and will be available from early August to support decision making over Confirmation and Clearing.
Will students defer?
Much has been made of the potential for students to defer their university places this year as they seek a more ‘normal’ university experience. UCAS’ most recent research shows 64 per cent of those thinking about deferring (which itself has fallen from a high of 25 per cent to 18 per cent) have discussed this option with friends and family. However, critically, most of these students have only conducted ‘light’ research and smaller numbers still have undertaken ‘serious’ research; for example, just 5 per cent have contacted UCAS to understand the deferral process. We also know fewer students have accepted an offer for a deferred place this year – a statistic that caught many by surprise.
A student’s decision to defer is often based on what other options are available to them. However, the impact of COVID is wide ranging and prospective students are likely to have fewer alternative options open to them immediately. Travel plans will be difficult and employment opportunities are likely to reduce in light of the changing economy. Equally, there will be many deferred applicants whose plans for the coming year have now been cancelled and who may now wish to enter university earlier than expected. Higher education remains an option for these students.
All universities will have deferral policies in place and these would have likely been reviewed in light of COVID. We are confident universities will be keen to engage with students whose plans have changed and support them in any way they reasonably can.
What will support for students be like?
As we all know, schools and colleges have been dealing both with issues associated with the cancellation of exams and with the public health challenges involved in managing the distribution of results. Far from those stereotypical scenes of young people jumping in the air waving pieces of paper, this year’s results days will be more subdued affairs, with contact and mixing minimised as far as possible as social distancing is maintained.
UCAS is working with partners across the sector to bring a sense of celebration to students, as well as providing timely information and advice from experts, through its Big Results Day Shows.
We have significantly enhanced our approach to keeping students informed this year in recognition of the additional uncertainty presented by COVID. Through our Facebook live broadcasts, we have engaged with millions of students and put them directly in touch with key figures in higher education, such as government ministers. We have also sought to make sure students know exactly what universities are doing in response to the pandemic by linking to the provider’s own response pages. This approach has created an environment where the provision of information has increased in line with the extra engagement of students and this will be the new normal for information and advice.
Can we be confident in calculated grades?
The sector has been assured that this year’s ‘calculated grades’, awarded via teacher predictions, have equal status to those awarded in other years – applications will be treated as such and students should feel confident in the validity of their grades.
Notwithstanding such reassurances, we are confident universities will show extra flexibility this year, particularly with disadvantaged students. A key example is private candidates where it has not been possible for them to obtain a calculated grade – UCAS has produced good practice considerations to aid the sector in assessing these students.
As we saw with the International Baccalaureate (IBO) and SQA results days, some students will be elated with their results, whereas others will be disappointed and feel this is through no fault of their own. Students will have more queries than ever before, with more complex choices to make. Over the last few months, we have consistently exceeded our forecasted contact volumes with 50,000 extra students (+46 per cent) seeking our support since March. Ahead of results day, we are ramping up the support we offer through our expert call centre, social media channels and content on ucas.com and we encourage universities to do the same.
Will students appeal?
Initially, it was widely acknowledged that Centre Assessed Grades (CAGs) (those predicted by the school or college) would remain confidential. However, we now know that, come results day, students will have the right to see their CAG through a subject access data request (SAR). The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) has issued helpful guidance as to how schools might manage this process, recommending schools wait until the following day or week to release this information to allow for a cooling-off period and for this to take place in the context of a teacher-supported interview, talking about next steps.
Universities will want to exercise flexibility when taking these into account, most likely for ‘near miss’ students, but will be mindful that not all students will have access to their CAGs at the same time as the formal SAR process has a 40 day window for release of information – and that, ultimately, the calculated grade is the student’s official and regulated result.
It is also worth noting there is an appeals process and an autumn series (for students in England) should students wish to challenge their result and/or sit the examination. UCAS has pushed its advisory deadline back until the 7th September – we ask that universities and colleges keep places open until then, where it is practically feasible to do so.
So, what does this all mean?
This year is different and we recognise that. But COVID is not a single cycle event – the pandemic will be a consideration for universities for at least five cycles as they seek to mitigate the impact on students and contextualise their achievements.
This year will also be unpredictable, with COVID likely to present more twists and turns. The important thing is that all of us who support students, including universities and UCAS, are prepared to be flexible and are able to demonstrate this to students through rich engaging content and actions. All eyes will then turn to welcoming them onto campuses, be that physical or virtual and supporting their transition to the ‘new normal’ of university life.