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Students embarking on higher education courses in Autumn 2020 have overcome challenges which were unimaginable at the UCAS application deadline on 15th January 2020.  The pace of events was bewildering. The imposition of remote learning and the emergence of a significant digital divide, the cancellation of examinations, the absence of IAG while navigating the decision phase of the application process, an awarding mechanism which employed a deeply flawed algorithm which favoured small cohorts in centres with historic strong performance; a chaotic reversal to centre assessed grades several days after the publication of results and enrolment and transition to courses which offer blended or remote delivery in the midst of local lockdown and learner isolation.  In the face of all of this, UCAS report an 8% increase in the number of 18 year olds resident in POLAR4 quintile 1 accepted at UK universities – 28,030 learners who demonstrate what resilience actually means.

The year ahead

Applicants for 2021 entry face even greater disruption.  We are seeing rolling quarantine for entire year groups at a large number of schools, indecision over exactly which parts of the curriculum will be assessed and when (or indeed if) examinations will take place.  Mark Drakeford, First Minister of Wales, illustrates the issue in advising that students “Think carefully about mock exams because they might count towards your final result if it’s not possible to run conventional exams again. We plan in this scenario to draw on a wider range of evidence of a young person’s performance and ability over the year than we were able to in the circumstances last year.” Educators are scrambling to teach and support applicants in a shifting landscape. Support for researching HE choices was disrupted by the cancellation of exhibitions in Spring and Summer 2020 and the replacement of traditional face to face outreach and summer enrichment programmes with digital alternatives.  Many of these face to face encounters would have been the first point of contact between student and university.  Universities are rewriting communications plans on a near daily basis.

The applicant experience in the absence of normal

According to a UCAS and Youth Insight Survey conducted in September, 89% of prospective applicants describe their foremost anxiety as being unable to visit universities to inform their choices. The UCAS process requires a curious mix of the objective and subjective. Predictions of performance require data and experience of the learner’s non-cognitive skills.  This simply doesn’t exist in environments where large cohorts of learners arrived in September 2019 and remote learning commenced in March 2020.  The digital divide means that in effect a significant proportion of learners were unable to access materials from March 2020, a factor that will result in a divergence in attainment outcomes for several years to come.  Applicants for degree programmes that seek evidence of practical experience and engagement with a profession have further obstacles to overcome.

Colleagues working in widening participation have pivoted to digital delivery.  As in so many aspects of life, SARS COV 2 is acting as an accelerant.  Blended delivery is not a new idea, the change in balance between digital and in-person provision is not yet settled but arrangements that we considered best practice have been made obsolete by events.  What does all of this mean for those aspiring to embark on degree courses in Autumn 2021?  Demographic change provides a larger cohort than those seen in recent years.  In the face of a collapsing labour market demand for higher education generally increases.  Applicants embarking on the UCAS process do so in good faith and in the face of huge uncertainty.  We owe it to them to be inclusive, to understand that nothing is normal, and to recognise that their determination is a quality that we should all be inspired by.

Steve Minney is Head of Undergraduate Recruitment at Swansea University

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