No one would dispute that COVID-19 has severely disrupted the education of millions of people. Our polling with Advance HE, for example, shows an unprecedented proportion of undergraduate students think they have received ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’ value for money and twice as many as usual feel their experiences have been worse than their prior expectations.
This is not surprising, given full-time students on three-year courses graduating this summer will have had every one of their years at university disrupted. Those leaving school / college this summer have seen both their GCSEs and their school-leaving qualifications (A-Level / BTECs) affected. Those in the early years of primary school have had a very odd start to their schooling.
But it is also true that most of the really big predictions about how COVID would affect education have (fortunately) turned out to be wrong.
Here’s five examples.
Prediction 1: Home schooling would reduce how much pupils learnt across the board
Clearly, in many instances pupils’ learning suffered – as did their mental health – but it does not automatically follow that this must be true across the board. The emerging evidence certainly suggests it may not be so. Recent very important but barely noticed analysis of the National Reference Test for English and Maths suggests it was not true among secondary school pupils for one of these two subjects: ‘In English, results show no statistically significant difference from previous years.’ (See chart at bottom.) The researchers admit they were taken aback by this finding, describing it as ‘a little surprising, given the disruption to education caused by the pandemic’. Their explanation is that pupils ‘will have continued to use and respond to written and spoken English, in school in English as well as in other subjects, and outside school.’ In Maths, the story was less positive but still not as bad as might have been expected; the results take us back to where we were three years before the crisis: ‘performance is now closer to the level seen in 2017 – the first year that the reformed 9 to 1 GCSEs were awarded.’
Prediction 2: There would be fewer students
The Institute for Fiscal Studies’s ‘Central scenario’ for how COVID would affect higher education student numbers, published on 6 July 2020, assumed a 10 per cent drop in UK undergraduate enrolments (plus a 50 per cent drop in EU and international student enrolments). Just three days later, UCAS published a press release headed ‘UNIVERSITY APPLICATIONS RISE DURING LOCKDOWN’ and this trend has largely continued since with, for example, UCAS reporting last autumn that ‘The number of UK 18 year olds who have applied by the October 15  deadline is up by 3%’.
Prediction 3: Drop-out rates would rise
I hold my hand up here as I was among the many people who thought that the COVID-related disruption could cause more students to drop out from their course. In August 2020, for example, I argued in the Observer that ‘New students will be less well prepared than their predecessors … They could also find it harder to integrate, as freshers’ fairs and social events are postponed or cancelled. They won’t all survive the distance.’ This could still turn out to be true, given the delay in the publication of robust data on such things, but it seems unlikely that it occurred. From what we currently know, if seems as if non-continuation rates have remained at their low level (relative to other countries) and may have actually fallen even further. In early 2021, for instance, the Student Loans Company (SLC) said, ‘[the] SLC has not seen any increase in student withdrawal notifications for the purpose of student finance in this academic year, compared to the previous two years. In this respect, withdrawal notifications are currently slightly lower than the previous two years for UK & EU students funded by Student Finance England, Student Finance Wales and Student Finance Northern Ireland.’
Prediction 4: Many students would respond to the crisis by opting to live at home in the future
In June 2020, one Professor of Higher Education (who I admire greatly) implied COVID could increase the proportion of commuter students who opt to live at home and even argued: ‘If Covid-19 makes the stay-at-home option more appealing, this is something to celebrate, not regret.’ The previously mentioned work by the Institute for Fiscal Studies assumed ‘Accommodation, catering and conference income will be almost entirely lost … Therefore, we assume universities make zero income from these activities for 6 months.’ In fact, as our own polling showed, the overwhelming majority of full-time undergraduate students continued to reside at their term-time address and investors and student accommodation providers continue to display huge confidence in future demand. It remains possible that there could be a long-term change in behaviour, with a higher proportion of younger students opting to live at home, but it’s been predicted many times before when other shocks have occurred (such as when fees in England rose to £9,000) and it has not happened yet. People are as likely (more likely?) to respond to lockdown and isolation by wanting to move away from home than by deciding they prefer inter-generational living arrangements after all.
Prediction 5: It would be a bad time to graduate as the graduate labour market would be worse
In the short-term, it does seem that graduating in 2020 was tougher than normal in terms of finding work (and many students struggled to find the sort of term-time work that can supplement their income too). But the Institute of Student Employers recently breathlessly reported the results of their survey undertaken between September 2021 and January 2022: ‘The graduate jobs market has recovered with the number of vacancies now 20% higher than in 2019 before the Covid-19 pandemic’.
Why does it matter?
It is worth flagging how poor the predictions about education in a pandemic have turned out to be because it acts as a reminder about how hard it is to predict the future, because it could serve as a useful guide in future crises and because it shows the importance that hard counter-intuitive evidence should play in policymaking.
Most importantly, looking at the (in)accuracy of such predictions should serve as a guide on where to focus limited resources to help those who really have lost out. For example, if – as the evidence above suggests – secondary school pupils lost out in Maths but not in English, then that should affect how we fund and deliver any catch-up support.
A very good summary of how difficult it is to predict student responses and the resulting outcomes – particularly at a time of unprecedented external conditions.
I would add one further implication. There is an important lesson for university leaders here: any attempt to hard-wire their university’s future around a prediction of how the world will be a year from now, never mind five or ten years from now, is likely to be hugely risky. Instead, flexibility is the order of the day – deliberately designing in the ability to flex plans over time in response to new patterns of student demand, new data, new patterns of behaviour etc.
That is an encouraging analysis, although I am concerned that it is very possible that the schools which pulled out of the National Referencing Tests may have been more likely to be the weaker performing ones as the ones which were managing to keep things relatively normal will be the ones who could manage the tests more easily. If the weakest third did not submit results, it would distort the picture.
I now think exams will go ahead this year and I think they may be the most unfair results yet. I have a Y13 whose teaching (state comp) has been pretty well managed, and he had technology and working environment at home to make it manageable, although the loss of all practicals in Science A levels last year must have had an impact.
I really worry about what will happen for less fortunate students whose schools have struggled to deliver on line teaching due to lack of resources and may also be in more crowded homes where it is much harder to work effectively. I also worry about primary school children who are more behind as it was more difficult to deliver teaching on line to young children.