Universities braced for wave of deferrals this September because of coronavirus

Camilla Turner
Jesus College, Oxford, where students will face the prospect of online lectures from the autumn  - BLOOMBERG
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Universities are braced for a wave of deferrals as the June deadline approaches, The Telegraph has learned.

Vice-Chancellors are drawing up plans for multiple admissions scenarios ahead of June 18 which is the deadline for prospective students to decide whether or not they accept a place for this autumn.

University leaders fear that the prospect of online lectures, “virtual” freshers’ weeks and severely restricted social activities will put students off taking up their places this year.

“There is an increasing level of worry about deferrals among British students. Universities are preparing for it.” Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute said.

“There are concerns that the online learning experience may not be as good as in person. There is always an excitement about freshers’ week, and students will think they are not going to have any of that.”

A survey published last month found that over a fifth of university applicants have said they will defer their places if plans to put lectures online go ahead.

Up to 23 per cent of prospective students said they would no longer want to take up a place at university this autumn if it is not “operating as usual”, according to a report by London Economics for the University and College Union.

Magdalen College in Oxford. 23 per cent of prospective students said they would consider not taking up a place at university this autumn - BLOOMBERG

This would mean an estimated 120,000 students may delay attending British campuses when the academic year begins in September and October.

Earlier this week, university leaders revealed that they are drawing up plans for students to be grouped into “bubbles” to live and study together in a bid to limit the transmission of coronavirus on campus.

The arrangement will see students divided into groups of students from the same course as them and allocated the same hall of residence as the others in their group. 

Prof Sir Steve Smith, vice-Chancellor of Exeter University, told The Telegraph: “What we are trying to work out is the extent to which there will be a bigger percentage than normal who defer. I am in touch every day with my team about this, we need to prepare for two or three very different outcomes.”

He said that for prestigious Russell Group universities that have multiple students applying for every place, a wave of deferrals pose less of an issue than they do to less competitive institutions.

Prof Smith said that he “totally sympathises” with students who do want to defer their places, acknowledging that the experience they will have this year will not be what they envisaged.

“Vice-Chancellors are spending all their time trying to make sure that online lectures will be the highest quality, it is challenging, and it won’t be the same,” he said.

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Prof Julia Buckingham, president of Universities UK (UUK) which represents vice-Chancellors, insisted this week that this remains an incredibly “exciting” time to go to university, adding that a good degree will prepare students for what will be a “very challenging jobs market”.

UUK warned ministers in April that they faced “major financial risks” in the 2020-21 academic year due to a fall in the number of international students combined with a rise in undergraduate deferrals from home students. They said that without Government support, some institutions will face “financial failure”.

It comes as the universities watchdog, the Office for Students, publishes a new report into drop out rates and degree outcomes.

Less than two thirds of poorest students graduate with a first class degree or an upper second, compared to 85 per cent of wealthier peers, the report found.

It also found that the poorest students, defined as those who were eligible for free school meals in the six years prior to their GCSEs, were also more likely to drop out than those from more privileged backgrounds.