More than a fifth of students will defer their university places next year if universities are not “operating as usual”, the University and College Union (UCU) warned as it revealed the results of a new student survey.
According to a union-commissioned survey of 516 prospective students, over a fifth (22%) said they will defer going to university because of concerns that a substantial amount of learning will be conducted online.
Prospective students also said there was a 25% chance they would consider switching their university during clearing. The union warned this could lead to “a summer of chaos” as universities compete to secure undergraduates.
Ucas is planning to offer applicants an enhanced clearing process this summer. The system will allow students to track their options and switch providers more easily.
Policy consultants London Economics analysed the YouthSight survey and concluded that deferral rates could be four times higher than normal.
Figures from Ucas show that in normal years around 30,000 students (5-6% of applicants) opt to defer their places. If the results of this survey are borne out this summer, London Economics suggests there would be around 120,000 deferrals.
UCU is urging the government to provide the sector with a financial bailout to secure jobs and capacity.
General secretary Dr Jo Grady said she hoped this “shocking survey” would prompt vice-chancellors to joining the union’s campaign.
“With aspiring students now very worried about what will happen in the autumn, it is time for the government to underwrite higher education and provide the support it needs to guarantee survival,” she said.
“The current wait and see approach from ministers is exacerbating the crisis for prospective students and putting tens of thousands of jobs at universities and in the wider economy at risk. Without decisive action now, deferral rates will continue to rise and damaging competition to try and secure students still intending to study will intensify.”
Dr Grady urged universities to “work with their communities rather than move to sack staff or treat potential students as little more than bums on seats”.
Even in the event that universities do operate as normal in the autumn – with face-to-face learning in place and “few if any social distancing restrictions or limits on university activities or student life” – the survey suggests that as many as 13.3% of students would still opt to postpone.
Dr Gavan Conlon, partner at London Economics voiced his concerns about the impact of deferrals on the sector.
“There are a lot of jobs at risk – both in universities in the wider local and regional economies where universities are based,” he said.
The University of Manchester has suspended face-to-face lectures during autumn 2021 – Cambridge has gone further and cancelled them for the entire 2020/21 academic year.
Bolton University has announced that it intends to offer a fully operational campus experience in the autumn, with strict social distancing and infection control procedures in place.