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Students accept offers they cannot refuse

The release of headline data from UCAS yesterday has shown that most students in the UK accepted offers made by universities this year. In many ways, these were offers that they could not refuse. This will come as a relief for most universities along with a dip in the numbers agreeing on deferral since the same time last year. However, their problems have not gone away. Many students and families will continue to add up the cost over the rest of the summer. Meanwhile, our universities are preparing themselves for an intake that will have increased financial problems (See TEFS 22nd May 2020 ‘How precarious are universities in the UK?’). It will be interesting to see how many students seek to defer after their results are out in August. Also, what the response of the universities will be. I expect most will ask students unable to attend to reapply next year and take their chances. The die has been cast and it is even more pressing that a comprehensive plan to support students is put in place now. TEFS has again called on the government to set up a ‘taskforce on student support’ as a matter of urgency. Without this, the situation will evolve from a few deferrals to many more dropouts over time.

Yesterday UCAS released headline data on the numbers of students accepting offers from universities across the UK. With ‘Rise In Number of Students Planning to Start University This Autumn’ it sets out to reassure with a positive tone. Indeed, this is good news so far for most universities.

This is the first time UCAS has published data at this time in their cycle and its Chief Executive said: “We are publishing these headline offer-acceptance statistics for the first time, to provide the clearest possible picture of students’ behaviour at this moment in the application cycle.”

The number of acceptances from the UK has risen by 1%, from 408,220 to 410,420, when compared to the same time last year. The number of deferrals agreed in advance with universities has fallen and the numbers holding ‘agreed deferred offers’ still remains relatively low. The overall number has dropped by 4% from 14,230 to 13,640. On the face of it, the progress looks good so far. But there is still a long way to go for institutions, students and families facing multiple financial stresses.

Making an offer they cannot refuse.

It seems that fears about the possibility of waiting a year, making it difficult to reapply and succeed again in 2021, have prevailed. Also, there would be little point in waiting around with few jobs available and little to do in the meantime. In a way, they have been made an offer they cannot refuse. The blow will be softened a bit by most universities falling back from earlier positions at the last minute and deciding to teach students ‘ in-person’ (Universities UK Poll results on 17th June 2020 showed that ‘Most universities will teach in-person this autumn’). This might have influenced many student decisions for now. But they will still face stiffer challenges in time.

Back in May the picture looked like many might opt to defer and wait a year. A survey by University and College Union (UCU)and London Economics ‘Impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on university deferral rates and student switching – May 2020’ indicated that 24.4% said they are likely to switch universities and 17% were likely to ask to defer entry. This has not materialised yet.

The deadline for accepting offers was on 18th June and a ‘cooling-off period’ of seven days has now passed. The students are now committed to their chosen university if the results announced in August meet expectations. Many will expect that the grades predicted by their teachers will emerge as planned and they may have become more confident. But, unless there are clear mitigating circumstances, they will find they cannot change their plans so easily. After the results were out last year, the number classed as ‘free to be placed in clearing’ was 125,170. It will be interesting to see if this remains at the same level this year.

What we do not know.

The UCAS report yesterday covers only the headline numbers. It does not indicate the distribution of acceptances across each university. The cap on numbers this year will have been a factor in student acceptance decisions. Universities can only accept the number they had last year within a margin of +5%. This is a generous leeway that has consequences. It the larger and so-called ‘elite’ institutions accept up to the limit of +5% (in my experience, I would expect this to be the only target), the others would see a catastrophic drop in numbers. They will quickly fill their places even if students do not meet the grades in the original offer. An extra 5% for a 30,000-seater university means a decline of 1500 students elsewhere.

With many universities in a precarious financial situation, it is likely that some will come under more pressure (See TEFS 22nd May 2020 ‘How precarious are universities in the UK?’). Students cannot know at this point if their chosen university is likely to go bust soon after they arrive.

We also do not know how many students tried to defer their entry for a year and were turned down. Also, how many will try again later in the summer. However, it is expected that most universities will not allow deferrals.

The die is now cast but the problems have not receded.

UCAS has cast the die with their initial analysis of university take-up. It looks like students have largely set aside their concerns about the teaching to be offered and pressed on. This does not mean they are happy about it. A campaign to reduce fees for a lesser offering will rumble on regardless. A petition to ‘Reimburse all students of this year’s fees due to strikes and COVID-19’ has reached 346,966 signatures and will spill over into the coming academic year. 

Despite the overall number of agreed deferrals dropping by 4%, it is intriguing that applicants from the lowest participation areas (POLAR4 Quintile 1 see *Note below) have increased by 6%. The reasons for this are unclear but financial concerns might be the main reason. Indeed, this is likely to be a sign of things to come. Although it might be difficult, more students may find that they have to ask universities to defer as there is no set deadline from UCAS. This will mean the problem has not gone away.

UCAS advice leaves the door open with “Deferring after you get your exam results/after your place is confirmed – if you're due to start your course in September and decide you want to defer your place for a year, you must contact the university or college directly. Some course providers may not allow deferral for some courses at this point in the application cycle. You will be asked to give reasons for your late decision to defer. Your request will be considered, but there is no guarantee that it will be accepted, and you may be asked to reapply.”

It will be interesting to see how many find they do not have enough finance and place themselves at the mercy of the university of their choice. Also, how many universities are ready to offer financial help as soon as they can. 

A ‘student support task force’ is needed.

This is why TEFS has called for the government to set up a ‘student support task force’ ( see ’Open Letter to UK Government Ministers - taskforce on student support urgently needed’ and the Guardian 'University students who work part-time need support – or they will drop out'. The worst-case possible would mean students arriving in hope to find they are out of pocket and begging for ‘hardship funds’. Their families out of work and no part-time work for them. The likelihood of this happening is now greater than ever. This means that a more robust strategy across the UK is needed to get these hard-working young people off to a good start.

Oscar Wilde once said that “The basis of optimism is sheer terror”. Let us hope he was wrong. He also said that “Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.” This generation of students will have a life-changing ‘learning’ experience like no other before them. They will remember what has happened and their experiences and views will be around well after the virus has been tamed.

Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics. He has served on the Senate and Finance and planning committee of a Russell Group University

*NOTE. POLAR refers to Participation of Local Areas and there are now four versions. The data used here is based upon POLAR Version 3. The POLAR3 classification is formed by ranking 2001 Census Area Statistics (CAS) wards by their young participation rates for the combined 2005 to 2009 cohorts. This gives five quintile groups of areas ordered from ‘1’ (those wards with the lowest participation) to ‘5’ (those wards with the highest participation), each representing 20 per cent of UK young cohort. Students have been allocated to the neighbourhoods on the basis of their postcode. Those students whose postcode falls within wards with the lowest participation (quintile 1) are denoted as being from a low participation neighbourhood. See HESA Definitions and benchmark factors: definitions. HESA does not apply POLAR classification for universities in Scotland. Instead, the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) uses the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD) that has smaller geographical areas.


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