The longer-run effects of Covid for UK universities

On-campus art

It’s lovely that the ambition of some in British politics to produce ‘world-beating’ processes in response to Covid-19 has finally borne fruit in the surprisingly-not-that-contested category of ‘mangling school exam results.’

Whereas other countries simply reinstated some exams, or developed an adjustment regime that had widespread buy-in, or flexed on university provision, the UK has performed a masterclass in closed, unreflective and ultimately unworkable policy-making, with a very large dollop of changing-of-minds.

As may be apparent, I’m not a fan of how this has gone, even if yesterday’s U-turn on English results does (finally) provide a more much adequate degree of social justice for school leavers.

However, it now leaves another set of problems, mainly for universities.

The delay in getting to the current system means that universities have already made many tens of thousands offers to students, who now will be able to revisit their choices. Even in a system used to only discovering its freshman intake six or seven weeks before teaching starts, this is not a good position to be in, especially if you’re an institution trying to make ends meet and considering the position of staff and resourcing.

Even in the least-disruptive scenario, we’re going to end up with a lot of people starting their studies at institutions other than the one they planned to go to, or at their original choice but after being initially rejected.

That’s going to be tough for colleagues, because we know that such students are more likely to have weaker affective links to the university, resulting in poorer engagement and performance than might otherwise be the case.

This isn’t to say it can’t work, since it evidently can, but the chances of disengagement are going to be higher than for those getting unproblematically to where they planned to go, especially in a socially-distanced environment.

Already we knew that we’d have to work harder and more carefully to build and maintain a sense of community with our students in such an environment, but that is now compounded by this additional disruption.

That requires a short- and a long-term response from us.

Short-term, we need to be very alive to the specific composition of our new cohort of students. That means as much 1-2-1 contact through tutors as possible, facilitating the creation of connections within the cohort and between returning and new students, as well as ensuring that our learning spaces are run with ample opportunities to receive and implement feedback on the go.

Long-term, that close engagement needs to endure throughout this cohort’s time with us, even more than usual for our students. But we also need to look again at the admissions process in the round.

A post-qualification system would avoid a lot of the uncertainty and stupidity inherent in the current model (if you’re not familiar with it, Google yourself silly and wonder at how it ever came to be thus), and the likelihood of future disruption to school education in the coming year(s) means this summer’s stop-gap isn’t going to work again.

Part of that is going to have to be about universities working together with schools and students on pushing for change in policy, and developing fairer and more inclusive systems to replace what we have.

Right now, that might seem like a very low bar, but then so have been many others during this pandemic: maybe for once we might try to clear it with a bit of a run-in, rather than by first smacking our heads into it, repeatedly.