What a year to apply to university – and record numbers of 18-year-olds have done just that. According to the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas), applications are up 11 per cent on last year to reach 43 per cent of young people. Numbers were off the charts last year too, after higher teacher-assessed grades forced universities to honour offers and led to the biggest jump in numbers universities had ever seen.
This year’s A-level students have had less teaching, no formal exams and even more uncertainty. Burned by last year’s admissions chaos, university admissions staff have spent months working out how to accommodate this year’s school leavers and reports say they have been more cautious with offers. Everyone wants a return to some sort of normal this year, but institutions are not making any promises, though as Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the Office for Students (OfS), the independent regulator for higher education in England, points out: “Generally, universities are planning for the resumption of face-to-face teaching this autumn.”
In the wake of surveys by Accenture and the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) that flagged a fall in student wellbeing, universities acknowledge that students need more support than ever. David Seaton, assistant director of admissions and student recruitment at the University of Bedfordshire, says: “Universities are well aware of how hard it will have been during lockdown and are committed to supporting students.”
How are A-level grades being assessed this year?
No algorithm in sight, with teachers determining grades using a mix of in-class exams, coursework and wider checks for fairness. And no one should have been judged on anything they didn’t have a chance to learn.
“At the heart of teacher-assessed grades is the desire to give all pupils a fair chance to show what they’re capable of, regardless of how much education they may have lost,” says Peter Mitchell, head of St Joseph’s Catholic Academy in South Tyneside.
Schools checked and submitted grades in mid-June and exam boards will have made their own quality checks. While pupils may already know how they did in tests, they may not necessarily know their final grade.
What if I don’t agree with my grades in a few days’ time?
If your place at university depends on it, you can fast-track an appeal via your school or college by August 16.
Schools and colleges will first assess whether there have been any errors in administration or academic judgment. If students disagree with their assessment, they can then ask for a separate exam board review by August 23. Any decision here will be final and grades could go up or down, or stay the same. Results day is a week earlier this year to allow for appeals.
Universities say they will hold a place during an appeal where possible, but this will depend on individual institutions during what could be a messy year, though Jamie Bradford, head of recruitment at De Montfort University, notes: “Universities are going to be flexible and do everything they can to give students a fair chance to appeal. There’s a lot less panic this year than last.”
The Exam Results Helpline opens in Scotland from August 7-15 (0808 100 8000) and the rest of the UK from 16-30 (0800 100 900).
Will my grades be inflated?
In-house exams may have helped moderate grade inflation this year, says Joe Robbins, head of consulting at professional private tutoring agency The Profs. But after a disruptive two years, teachers and awarding bodies may be more inclined to give students the benefit of the doubt, says Dr Mark Corver, of university data experts DataHE, and many admissions staff expect this year’s grades to be higher than pre-pandemic.
Be realistic, Corver advises: grades this year may have slightly less currency than in a “normal” year.
Will it be harder to get into university this year?
With higher grades a possibility again this year, AAB – the traditional grade threshold for an elite university – might not be as likely to get you in as it would have pre-pandemic, but there may be more space on different courses and larger campuses. Last year, most universities managed to fit in extra students who met grade requirements, and this year they will want to do the same. Selective courses with limited space – usually medical – are likely to be squeezed though: there are only so many dental chairs to go around.
“If the course or institution is uber-selective – Oxford, say – then the answer is yes [places will be limited],” says Nick Hillman, director of Hepi. “The oldest and most prestigious universities are limited by size and their intensive teaching.”
But fear not, there isn’t some large wave of “pre-booked” students, says DataHE’s Corver: late deferrals from last year represent just 1 per cent of places this year – about 5,000 students. “I don’t think 18-year-olds should worry about places being taken,” he says.
Should I defer this year?
Data suggests that entry won’t become easier next year, so defer only if you want to, or if the university can offer a guaranteed place for 2022, says Corver.
A rising young population and enduring enthusiasm for university mean 2022 will probably be another competitive year. Most students took up their place last year, and the proportion of UK 18-year-olds deferring entry remained steady – 8.4 per cent last year compared with 8.2 per cent just before the pandemic – while a Hepi survey found that nearly six out of 10 said they would still choose the same course and institution.
Every year, says Corver, some students opt for a different subject at the same university – with happy results. “The Ucas application encourages you to focus on the subject, but I would recommend a bit more flexibility.”
Will there be a real Freshers’ Week this year?
Everyone is hoping for nights out, big events, sports and a chance to mingle, says Anja Hazebroek, director of marketing at the University of Hull: “However the reality is that at this stage, we can’t give certainty or any level of detail.” Last year there were socially distanced welcome weeks with open-air cinema and music, supplemented by virtual meetups. Watch this space.
Will I get face-to-face teaching?
Almost certainly, yes, says Alison Johns, chief executive of the higher education organisation Advance HE: a survey shows students have missed personal interaction hugely, and universities know this.
There is unlikely to be a complete return to traditional “stand and deliver” lectures, however: some element of digital teaching is inevitable – and this is not necessarily bad news. The University of Manchester has already confirmed large lectures will remain online, albeit with an interactive element. “We have learnt a great deal over the past 18 months,” says Johns, “so it is important to take those lessons forward, such as ‘lecture capture’, which allows students to learn and revise at their own pace, blended with in-person teaching.”
OfS has asked universities to let students know in good time what teaching will look like in the autumn. “If you haven’t already been told, check with your institution before you start,” advises OfS chief executive Dandridge.
What if I catch Covid when I get to university?
Don’t panic: campus universities such as Loughborough have medical centres and promise to support ill students, although GP services in some cities may be stretched. “If you have to isolate in halls, we’ll provide you with food, access to medical supplies, library books and printing,” says Dr Manuel Alonso, director of student services at Loughborough.
Last year, many universities made it easier to claim extra time for assignments and missed deadlines, and they say they are sympathetic to Covid-related illness.
I haven’t been able to visit my uni in person as open days have been virtual. What if I change my mind?
Universities offer a cooling-off period of up to four weeks after the start of term when you can quit without cost; beyond that you will pay 25 per cent of your first-term fees.If you are worried and haven’t been able to set foot on campus, speak to current and former students, advises Dr Lisette Johnston, head of school at ScreenSpace, a partnership between MetFilm School and the University of West London. “Unibuddy [a platform that lets applicants chat to students] is good for this,” she says. “Talk through course design and ask questions.”
Many universities are now holding in-person open days and campus tours. If you think you’ve made the wrong choice, you can withdraw your application and reapply through Clearing – a system that matches applicants to university places yet to be filled – or if you’ve done better than expected, try to trade up via Ucas Adjustment.
What if I can’t get a part- time job? Is there any help with finances this year because of the pandemic?
Students are forever hard-up – they’re short of about £330 a month, says Vivi Friedgut, chief executive of student financial adviser Blackbullion, but this could be a good year to get a part-time job. While 45 per cent of students lost jobs during the pandemic, mostly in hospitality, there’s now a dearth of waiting and kitchen staff.
Last year’s £70 million government bail-out for hard-up students was a one-off, but those with real financial problems can still apply to their university for hardship funding. “You can access it relatively fast if you need to,” says Friedgut. There are also scholarships and grants offered by universities, foundations and philanthropists: ask your university for details.
Enterprising students may also want to start a side hustle, such as hairdressing, tutoring, copywriting, or online sales – students can earn £12,570 a year tax-free.