HE admissions - planning for a more certain 2021

  By Dan Shaffer   - Wednesday 09 December 2020

Uncertainty is part of the job for HE admissions staff, but the Covid-19 pandemic threw an extreme factor into the mix that put even the best planned minds in doubt. The disruption to working practices, the interruption to studies and the late changes to awards was an unprecedented burden for staff. The anxiety was amplified for the many applicants caught up in the reactionary turmoil of an unjust results process that threatened their aspirations. We were all understandably caught off guard in 2020, but we will not have the same excuses for 2021 entry. The problems are now known and if we are to prevent a repeat of them then we need to plan and communicate how we will handle them.

Entry requirements

A Levels and GCSEs in England will be delayed, with results published on 24 and 27 August respectively. That leaves little time to confirm places or run a sustained Clearing operation, especially for some professional courses and colleges which start the new term at the beginning of September. Critically, it does not allow time for another chaotic change to results post-publication. Students in Wales will not be sitting exams; results will be based on teacher assessment as in 2020. Scotland has just announced that Highers and Advanced Highers will also be teacher assessed, removing the stress and uncertainty out of results. Scottish results will be available much earlier and the Welsh government could choose to follow suit. However, the government in England is still (at time of writing) committed to holding exams, albeit with a reduced curriculum and more favourable marking. Such adjustments in England will apply to all students, regardless of how much disruption or disadvantage individuals have faced, so it is likely traditional gaps in attainment will widen, favouring the best resourced schools and households able to offer extra support. Teacher unions and some Vice-Chancellors, including from University of Birmingham and Sheffield Hallam University, have called on the government to drop exams in England and we should expect the pressure to mount, especially if there is a post-Christmas rise in Covid-19 cases and localised school closures.

I don’t know if the government will make another u-turn, of if it does, how soon before or how long after results such a decision will be made. I do know it would be irresponsible to wait and unfair on applicants to make offers laden with doubt. Government does not set the terms and conditions of entry to HE and government is not responsible for who is admitted and who is denied admission to HE. That responsibility rests with each HE institution and it is our duty, and potentially legal responsibility, to ensure there is no unfairness in our recruitment and selection process due to foreseeable events.

The best way to plan around the uncertainty of results in England would be to pre-empt any possible change. Decide within your own institution what is fair and how you would consider results if they are exam-assessed or changed to centre-assessed, and then make applicants and their advisers aware of your plans.

Most universities and colleges are used to applying contextual admissions: considering attainment alongside applicants’ background, learning environment and personal circumstances to recognise their potential. Some have a highly developed policy assessing a multitude of factors, whilst others employ a less formal expansion of academic judgement. These same principles can be applied to make adjustments for the impact on Covid-19 and could provide reassurance to applicants that any disruption already suffered due to the pandemic, or any disruption that may follow, will be taken into account regardless of how results will be awarded. Such a move would be more than merely regaining control over admission; it would send a strong message to applicants about the care and support an institution offers. It would also be an opportunity to strengthen bonds with local schools and colleges and with your own FE provision if you have it. Such local or regional relationships will give you the best insight into the ongoing impact of this pandemic on learning and assessment.

It may also be prudent to consider alternative assessments. Regardless of any action governments take, there will be some students unable to sit exams, unable to be fully assessed within their school or unable to complete part of an award due to the pandemic. This will likely have a disproportionate impact on some qualifications and some local areas, as it did in 2020. 

Everything else

Although confirming national qualifications for entry to HE will have the highest-profile impact on planning 2021 entry (and no doubt have most media attention), results aren’t the only variable affecting admission. Here are a few, but by no means all, additional uncertainties to consider. They will differ depending on the type, size and location of your institution, so determine your priority order for contingencies.

1. Unemployment

The economic impact of this pandemic is likely to be felt for a long time. Rising unemployment traditionally results in higher HE application numbers and 2020 entry definitely saw a surge in mature applicants. Expect that trend to continue in 2021, but don’t expect them to apply to you unless you do something to attract them.

2. Subject preferences

It won’t come as much of a surprise to find out there was an increase in applications to healthcare courses in 2020. The pandemic is likely to turn minds socially, emotionally and economically towards certain courses, and conversely away from others. If you have a wide portfolio of courses you should be seeking market insight into shifting targets and resources whilst there’s still ample time to recruit to newly popular areas or shore up ones under threat. If you have a smaller, specialist provision, work out whether or not the trend favours you and how long it is likely to last beyond 2021. Future government and private funding may shift as a result of the pandemic.

3. Reviews

Although they shouldn’t impact directly on 2021 entry, anticipate a string of HE reviews from governments, sector bodies, professions and probably internally, too. Universities’ UK proposal for a form of post-qualification admissions will start moving at a pace and a review of HE funding is likely. Employability pressures may mean reforms for technical, professional and apprenticeship courses are sped up, as may redressing the provision of HE in FE. It is vital that the experts in HE admission from all types and size of institution respond fully to such proposals, but it will be difficult in the middle of what will be a pressured recruitment cycle. Plan time, but also anticipate how all the reviews and proposed changes may affect the morale of staff and add to their existing sense of uncertainty.

What we still don’t know

Planning will only get us so far. The most important lesson from 2020 we need to prepare for is that there may be something we never envisaged and have to react to with little warning or guidance. At such times, success will depend on the resilience of staff and the trust of applicants in those staff. Uncertainty is part of the job, but we do our jobs well when we stop uncertainty being passed onto our applicants.

Dan Shaffer was previously Head of Professionalism in Admissions for the Supporting Professionalism in Admissions (SPA) programme where he developed their good practice guidance on areas of the applicant experience, equality and planning, and managing admissions. Dan is currently an independent consultant on fair admissions.

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