Will the Class of 2020 follow the numbers?

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Stephen Scott


Stephen Scott


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With this years A Level results for students due on the 13th August, RLB Partner and National Head of Education, Stephen Scott, reflects on the latest data from UCAS and its implications for the Class of 2020.

When UCAS released its data for applications up to the main June 30th deadline, there was an almost audible sigh of relief from universities across the UK.  The figures seem far stronger and offer a more optimistic picture than most post-COVID-19 predictions suggested. So far the Class of 2020 seems to be fairly set on pursuing its higher education ambitions.

Numbers of UK applicants are 1.6% up on the figures at the same stage in 2019, with 514,020 people applying for an undergraduate course by 30 June 2020.  Perhaps more surprisingly, the all-important applications from those outside of the EU have increased by 10% at just over 89,130.  Detailed analysis of the data also reveals that, compared to previous years, the rate of applications actually increased during lockdown, further defying the received wisdom on student reactions to a socially distanced University experience.

However, these numbers and the underlying sentiment behind them could move quite significantly.  We know that there is a lot that can change in the next two months and universities won’t be relaxing until those predicted student numbers become real physical students arriving with them to take up their places and pay their fees.  Here again though, there could  be grounds for cautious optimism:

  • Ofqual has suggested that the number of students getting good A-Level grades will be 2% higher this year with candidates more likely to be given the benefit of the doubt in the absence of formal examinations.
  • The lack of credible ‘year out’ or gap year options in a COVID-19 restricted travel and economic environment may also make last minute deferrals less likely.
  • The increasingly busy ‘Clearing’ period should also present less uncertainty for individual institutions this year, if the Government’s cap on student numbers works as intended.

While things seem to be heading in the right direction, the much talked about second COVID-19 wave could seriously disrupt student plans and the confidence suggested by the above.  We are certainly seeing more cautious views from both the regulatory body, the Office for Students (OfS), and the thinktank, the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS).  Not long after UCAS released its numbers, the OfS announced that it was seeking new powers through a consultation to be able to “intervene more quickly in cases where universities or colleges are at material risk of closure” to protect student interests.   Similarly, the IFS had a more sombre outlook with its statement in early July that it was a “very real prospect” that a number of institutions could go under as a result of COVID-19, if they don’t receive a government bailout.  The research pointed to around a dozen universities being at risk due to uncertainty around both the international and domestic student market. So, it will be interesting to see if the IFS is feeling more optimistic as a result of the UCAS data.

Clearly, we are not out of the woods yet and this year’s students could still be waiting to see how universities are proposing to deal with COVID-19 and what will be on offer for them in the new academic year.

Universities are certainly pulling out all the stops to provide a safe and engaging environment to attract students to take up their places and commit to their fees.   The role of the estate is pretty fundamental to this. A year or so ago we were debating at round tables whether our increasing ‘clicks vs bricks’ culture might alter future investment cases for accommodation and campus facilities as virtual / remote learning increased.  Eighteen months on and having had a taste of 24/7 virtual learning, the post COVID-19 student cohort seems to think differently and it would seem a lot of students are still after the full university experience and are prioritising face to face teaching.

Needless to say, those university estates with flexibility built into their approach to master planning are in the best position to adapt their facilities to this new world.  Having the ability to easily re-purpose space and convert it to safe, socially distanced teaching facilities, creating accommodation bubbles and having the infrastructure to cope with additional temporary buildings, all helps create an environment to deal with the ongoing impact of coronavirus.

The next few weeks will be critical not only in terms of how COVID-19 develops both in the UK and around the world, but also how prospective students act once the exam results are released on the 13th August.  There is no doubt that universities across the UK are working incredibly hard to rise to the challenges 2020 has thrown at them so far, let’s hope the student numbers suggested by the UCAS data translate into reality.