The Class of 2021

AFS Team·3 June 2020·6 min read
The Class of 2021

Currently the Higher Education sector is experiencing an unprecedented level of disruption and as a result there is a significant amount of uncertainty about what will be happening in the 2020/21 academic year.

Universities have been hit particularly hard financially by campus closures and face the potential of further dramatic losses due to the potential reduction in international student numbers, which could amount to hundreds of millions of pounds according to the Guardian . Students have been equally adversely affected, experiencing a lower quality academic experience whilst bearing the same level of cost.

The uncertainty about the continued impact of Covid 19 places both students and Universities in a difficult position. Universities are under pressure from the Office For Students to provide students with certainty about their offering from September, so that potential students can make an informed decision about which University to attend. This is of course extremely difficult for Universities to do at the moment.

As a result students will need to make a decision about attending University in the knowledge that they may not enjoy the full ‘experience’ and this is causing some concern that it may result in a further reduction in student numbers and have a wider economic impact.

Worst gap year ever?

It is understandable that these concerns exist, however it is important to bear in mind that students will be making this decision in context. The crisis has had an impact across the economy and many of the ‘traditional’ gap year activities will also be impacted, in particular international travel and flexible/part time work, as the economy contracts. It is also worth remembering that the majority of students are midway through their studies and are likely to have less flexibility about deferring or taking time out.

The University Experience

UK Universities are generally regarded as among the best in the world. Furthermore, while costs have increased over the years, they are typically seen to offer good value and continue to attract both domestic and international students. It is fair to say though that a large part of this appeal is based on the wider experience of University, a crucial element of which is the on-campus experience. This is what provides the premium and it is not easily replicated in an online environment. As a result it is likely that most Universities will want to offer students as much of the traditional experience as possible in the current environment - this is effectively central to the 'offer'.

It is therefore important to look beyond the 'University of Cambridge goes online' stories and understand that what the University is actually saying is that they plan to re-open campus in September and they fully expect students to attend. Yes, the large groups of students in lectures will probably not be possible, however the aim will be to provide face to face teaching in smaller groups. To protect the overall 'experience' it is likely that many Universities will follow suit and provide a blended experience in 2021, supplementing in person teaching with digital delivery for large groups.

Nine principles to emerge from lock down

It is particularly significant that on the 3rd of June, Universities UK (the voice of Universities) launched 9 principles for emerging from lockdown. This plan has been developed to support the sector in providing the type of high quality experience students expect in the context of the current crisis. It begins to provide a national overview of how Universities can provide a blended learning experience in a safe and secure way this autumn. While on the one hand this can been seen as a challenge, it should also be seen as a desire on behalf of the Higher Education sector to open up again in September and crucially attract students back on campus.

You can download the document here and understand in detail the recommended approach. The most important principle is of course ensuring the health and safety of students, staff and visitors to Universities. However principle two is of particular interest as it begins to address how Universities might make practical changes to their layout and infrastructure to comply with guidance on social distancing. This includes such things as;

  • Managing foot flow on-campus
  • How class sizes and timetables might be adapted to minimise the number of students on campus at any one time
  • How to facilitate social and sporting activity in line with social distancing guidelines
  • How to manage student accommodation and maintain social distancing

​Currently a number of Universities are investing in changes to the infrastructure and teaching methods so that they can accommodate students back on-campus this year. There is also an effort to replicate some of the key aspects of student life online, with the potential for a move towards virtual freshers’ fairs a possibility. However, this is not an attempt to provide a wholly online learning experience, but one which enables an on-campus presence where safe and a digital environment where required.

Student Accommodation

While this can seem a daunting prospect for those in the Student Accommodation sector, it is clear that the intention of most Universities is to re-open to the greatest possible extent. It is also the case that some Universities are considering limiting the number of students in their own accommodation which may also create opportunities for other operators.

During this period of change we will continue to review the national picture and provide regular updates and research to keep you updated.