UK Universities Predicted a COVID-19 Crash. They Got the Opposite - OZY | A Modern Media Company
An exam result uproar has seen a huge increase in enrollment at U.K. universities — but not all of them.
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An exam result uproar has seen a huge increase in enrollment at U.K. universities — but not all of them.

By Bethan Staton

The coronavirus crisis has made things that normally excited college-bound teens, like socializing with peers and gathering in musty classrooms, potential health hazards. British higher education had feared a sharp fall in admissions this fall.

In fact, U.K. universities are heading for a “bumper year” of new admissions, according to preliminary figures, defying warnings of a downturn. Data from the University and College Admissions Service (UCAS) analyzed by DataHE indicates that 22 days after A-level results, 508,090 applicants had accepted places at universities.

Admissions at U.K. universities have increased by 3.5 percent, putting them on course for a record year.

Still, experts warn that final numbers remain uncertain and universities still face months of volatility.

The boost in admissions is partly down to the continued enthusiasm of foreign students for studying in the United Kingdom. International recruitment has so far increased by 1.7 percent to a record 71,400 this year, in spite of warnings the pandemic would reduce demand.

But the main reason for the higher numbers is the jump in high school exam grades after the government’s 11th-hour U-turn on results last month, when it dropped those moderated by the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation in favor of the more generous “center assessed” grades awarded by teachers. The original grades inspired widespread outrage when an algorithm applied appeared to disadvantage good students from poor backgrounds.

This, coupled with the dropping of a government cap in student numbers for top universities, has left a larger-than-usual proportion of college-bound teens with the grades needed for college, with the number of 18-year-olds going into higher education increasing by 5 percent compared with 2019.

“Universities have done a brilliant job in responding to the fallout from this summer’s exams crisis, leaving the sector with unexpectedly buoyant levels of recruitment,” says Mary Curnock Cook, a former CEO of UCAS.

But the boost has created losers as well as winners. At top-tier universities, enrollment is up by 11 percent from 2019, while it is up 1 percent at mid-tier institutions. Lower-tier institutions have seen virtually no change in application numbers. 

“Because the center-assessed grades elevated the overall attainment, the currency of qualifications got devalued, so it pushed everything up the system,” says Andrew Hargreaves, co-founder of DataHE. 

This left lower-tier institutions with a “deficit” of students, according to Hargreaves, who adds that some institutions have seen their pool of potential students decrease by 50 percent.

At London Metropolitan University, around 200 students “self-released” from places they had accepted after teacher-assessed grades were accepted — around 50 percent more than in a normal year.

“There was a lot of shifting around,” says Gary Davies, pro vice chancellor for student recruitment.

London Met’s diverse intake, which includes a high proportion of mature and postgraduate students, have helped it stay on track to meet its recruitment targets this year. But Davies says other universities are facing a significant shortfall. “There’s definitely a squeezed middle,” he says.

More-competitive universities, meanwhile, are struggling to accommodate the unexpectedly large student intake. “What you have this week is admissions and planning staff in a mad scramble to find out exactly what our needs on different courses are going to be, how much accommodation do we need, what’s the capacity for extracurricular activities and so on,” says Erik Lithander, pro vice chancellor for global engagement at Bristol University. 

One of the U.K.’s most sought-after universities, Bristol has admitted several hundred more students than usual since the A-level grades were announced. The increase is manageable, but logistically challenging given social distancing requirements, says Lithander.

He acknowledges that the numbers are not confirmed, as many students haven’t made a final decision about whether they will attend. “It’s not until the students actually walk through the door that we actually know who’s coming or not,” Lithander says.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, agrees that the final intake size will remain unclear for some time. “The real uncertainty is around international students and postgraduate students. We don’t know exactly how many international students will turn up until they actually turn up,” he says.

He adds that given the disruption of coronavirus, it’s likely that dropout rates could be higher than average this year.

Vanessa Wilson, CEO of the University Alliance, which represents technical universities, doesn’t expect to have a clear idea of the admissions impact until next spring. “Taking into account January starts, postgraduates and students changing their minds, we may not have a full picture until March next year,” she says. 

The government has committed extra funding for more expensive courses, such as engineering or nursing, at universities with large intakes this year and has dropped restrictions on student numbers for those that involve work placements.

But the situation for those with a shortfall in student numbers is less clear. In July the government published details of rescue funding for struggling universities, but made clear that any bailout would come with tough conditions. Sector leaders are pushing for a less onerous settlement.

University leaders also fear the government is underestimating the resources needed for the sustainability of the sector. They point out that while the number of 18-year-olds in the U.K. hit a low this year, from 2021 it will begin to rise and is projected to increase 27 percent in the next decade.

“The sector still had a bumper year despite the demographic low,” says Hargreaves. “We have a surge in demand coming.”

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By Bethan Staton

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