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Five questions currently on the minds of university recruitment teams

  • 23 November 2020
  • By Sander Kristel

Today’s blog was written by Sander Kristel, UCAS Chief Operations Officer. You can find Sander on Twitter @SKristel1

As Halloween, Bonfire Night and Diwali all pass and the Christmas countdown starts, admissions professionals usually begin to get a feeling for how the rest for the undergraduate cycle will pan out for them. October’s applicant numbers are in, and the main 15 January 2021 application deadline is just weeks away. Our whole world has changed since the last equal consideration deadline just over 10 months ago though and with that in mind – plus new survey insight to share – here are five questions we think admissions teams across the country will have at the front of their mind as we continue through the 2021 undergraduate cycle.

1. Has COVID impacted applicants’ ambitions?

In short, no. The number of people applying for October deadline courses (Medicine, Veterinary Science and Dentistry, plus all courses at Oxford and Cambridge) was up 12% compared to last year, with applicants from the most disadvantaged backgrounds (18-year-old POLAR4 quintile 1) up 19%. While this gives us a lot to be optimistic about, it’s only around 10% of all applicants each year.

For a more complete picture, we surveyed current Year 13 students (just before lockdown was reimposed in England), receiving over 21,000 responses to provide some very powerful insight into their collective thinking. Encouragingly, 90% of them are still planning to apply for autumn 2021 entry into higher education and only 13% of respondents are yet to start their personal statement as of the start of November.

Overall, 40% have already decided on their five course choices. However, this is much lower when looking at the responses from young men. Fewer than a third of male students (32%) say they have settled on all five of their course choices, compared to almost half (44%) of female respondents. Young men are more likely (63%, compared to 53% of young women) to still be in the research phase of narrowing down their choices to get to their final five.

If there was any lingering doubt, just 5 students (out of 21,000) said that COVID was the main influence on their choice of university. The early signals are undoubtedly encouraging, plus looking just a couple months ahead, previous years’ data tells us that there will be well over a half a million applicants once the 15 January deadline passes.

2. How will students make their choices when they can’t visit a campus?

Results from our latest survey have university websites as the clear leader of the primary source of information for current applicants (93% said they were either important or extremely important). After websites, online student reviews of universities come next, with 78% of respondents saying they were important/extremely important.

The pandemic has seen an explosion in virtual open days that try to recreate the feeling of visiting campus as much as possible. Well over half (59%) say they had attended a virtual open day, with the majority saying they had taken part in one or two. One point to bear in mind is that students would traditionally go to up to five open days in person so this year are attending fewer virtual open days than ‘on-campus’ visits in the past.  

Those who say they haven’t signed up often say they don’t think virtual open days will be truly representative and would prefer to have a real-life experience – however challenging that may currently be. They also feel that the same information can be found elsewhere, or, perhaps more encouragingly, they have already decided the courses they want to apply for.

As mentioned before, COVID is overwhelmingly not a factor – teaching quality is much more important than the risk of a local lockdown. Parents, course content and location are the overriding influencers on how students are making their choices though.

We have also seen a dramatic increase in the interest in apprenticeships by applicants for 2021, with 47% asking UCAS for more information on this option. This is a trend that we expect to continue, with UCAS embarking on a transformation in the coming months to overhaul our systems to offer the same support and level of service on apprenticeships as we do for undergraduate options

3. How will qualifications standards impact the 2021 cycle?

The culmination of the last cycle saw the move to centre-assessed grades in August (estimations in Scotland), and more students awarded the top grades than in previous years. COVID continues to present challenges for qualifications and regulation, with students having differing experiences.

At its core, admissions is a careful balancing act of x offers made of y students meeting the required conditions to 𝑧 students enrolling in September. Stability in qualifications helps universities in gauging offers and near miss considerations – therefore any impact that exam contingencies and mitigations have on grade distributions will need to be fully understood.

The holistic assessment of an applicant has perhaps never been more crucial, incorporating more specific reference information from teachers on students’ potential in light of COVID – and as with all crucial announcements we will continue to share messaging across the sector to enable admissions teams to plan and make their own timely decisions.

4. What’s going to happen to EU and international recruitment?

Travelling to a new country isn’t the easiest thing to do at present and it’s undeniable that UK higher education will need to reset its relationship with the EU, especially as EU students are now broadly subject to higher tuition fees and no longer eligible for supporting loans. In previous years, roughly 7-in-10 EU UCAS applicants intended to use a tuition fee loan, however, this is lower for students from several important European recruitment markets such as France, Germany, Italy and Spain.

Some countries, particularly Ireland (where the previous financial arrangements will continue), have already bucked the trend of falling EU applicants this year, as seen in the October deadline analysis. While there were 19% fewer EU applicants overall, Ireland is up 30% while Spain and Cyprus’ numbers are consistent with last year.

Advisers (typically teachers and counsellors) have confirmed – through additional survey feedback – that their students are still largely interested in an international higher education experience, but there has been a drop in help sought for UK applications specifically. This is in line with the 19% fall seen last month.

A much higher proportion of international applications are submitted after the 15 January deadline though, compared to domestic applications, so there is much more of a wait-and-see-element on the international front. My colleague Sarah Barr Miller recently blogged about this topic in more detail on Wonkhe.

5. How prepared will students be to start their course in Autumn 2021?

The high engagement levels that Year 13 students have with the research and application processes, combined with 70% reporting that they feel more focused since being physically back at school are good early indicators that they’ll be as ready as possible for the start of their undergraduate course.

However, it would be remiss not to take possible gaps in syllabus content and exam readiness into account when assessing applications now and welcoming students next autumn. Universities are well versed in supporting students from different starting points, and ultimately, nobody wants to see anyone fall behind due to COVID.

Student mental health and wellbeing will be the paramount consideration for universities. UCAS has reported that over recent cycles the number of students declaring a mental health challenge as part of the application has increase and we expect this trend to continue. This information is vital for student services teams to successfully support transitions into higher education and helping every student succeed.

With so much of the admissions cycle still to go and wider society constantly adapting to changing COVID circumstances, there are many unknowns ahead. But, by sharing the latest intelligence gleaned from application data and the sentiment from ongoing surveys, we can begin to piece together answers to the most important questions in the 2021 undergraduate admissions cycle.

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