The coronavirus pandemic and its impact on admissions to higher education

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This blog is a guest post by Professor Jon Scott. Jon is a higher education consultant with extensive experience in quality assurance and developing practice in learning and teaching. He also spent several years as a senior admissions tutor. His most recent academic roles were as Professor of Bioscience Education and Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Student Experience) at the University of Leicester.


The 2019-20 academic year must feature among the most challenging times faced by Higher Education in the UK. In the autumn of 2019, universities were challenged to address the thorny issues of grade inflation, plagiarism, unconditional offer making and public concerns over value for money. In the autumn and first weeks of 2020, there was also the double UCU strike action on pay and pensions, which disrupted teaching at many universities and which has still not been resolved. All of these, though, fade into the background against the impact of the current coronavirus pandemic.

With universities having stopped face-to-face teaching before the start of the Easter vacation, there has been a commendably swift response to put teaching on-line, building on their development of distance and blended learning expertise, and to work on changing assessment practices. Yet, looking ahead, there will still be significant challenges, amongst them will be handling the admissions process.

Handling the admissions process

The Department for Education (DfE) has announced that all public exams have been cancelled. This was clearly the only decision that could be taken. However, the vast majority of undergraduate admissions offers are based on the outcome of those examinations, be they A levels, BTECS, International Baccalaureates or other formal qualifications. At a stroke, therefore, the main set of criteria undergraduate admissions officers use to determine whether or not to admit an offer-holding applicant have been removed.

Deriving ‘calculated’ grades

Combined with the closure of their schools and colleges, this has created additional uncertainty for applicants who are, naturally, very concerned about their prospects of gaining their university place in the autumn. At the time of writing, Ofqual (the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation) is working with the exam boards to put in place a process for deriving formal ‘calculated’ grades, which will have sufficient academic credibility to be recorded as a formal qualification.

The DfE has stated that the calculation will be based on a range of evidence in order to try to ensure that no students are disadvantaged. This evidence will include the results from mock examinations, the predicted grades, teacher assessments of coursework and prior attainment, the last probably being based on GCSE results.

It is recognised that each of these input measures, on its own, is not a reliable indicator of a student’s ability and performance. For example, UCAS has shown that the accuracy of predicted A level grades has declined in recent years. In 2019 students taking three A levels were predicted an average of 2.35 grades above the achieved grade. The spread of predictions is not even across the board, for example UCAS reported that 24.4% of students who were predicted AAA achieved those grades whereas, of the students who achieved DDD, 98.3% of them were predicted higher grades.

The results of mock examinations, on the other hand, are likely to under-reflect the students’ performance because students will not have completed their programme of revision prior to these examinations.

This means that whatever model for calculating the grades Ofqual finally approves, it will need to represent a careful balance of the different inputs and be moderated in order to ensure fair outcomes for all students. The DfE has also confirmed that any student who is unhappy with the outcome of their calculated grade will be able to sit an examination after the schools have re-opened but how that may play out in terms of university admissions for 2020 is unclear.

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The prospects for universities

So, what about the prospects for the universities?

University admissions officers could face a real challenge. The admissions offers already received by applicants have been made on the basis, as always, of careful predictions of the proportions of students who are likely to achieve the offer grades matched against the number of places the university can accommodate. Having spent several years as a senior admissions tutor, I know what an art form this is! Universities are obliged to accept all those students who achieve the grades set out in their offer. If, therefore, the grades that are calculated through Ofqual’s process result in an overall higher rate of attainment, some universities could be in a very difficult position in trying to accommodate all the applicants who have met the original offer.

Some universities, which conversely are concerned that they may see fewer students entering in the autumn, have responded by moving to increase the number of unconditional offers they make, converting conditional offers into unconditional ones. In this case, the Universities Minister, Michelle Donelan, and the Office for Students (OfS) have acted swiftly and instructed the sector not to make any more unconditional offers or amend existing offers for at least two weeks. The OfS stated that: ‘… it would be quite wrong for any university or college to respond to the coronavirus crisis by making unconditional offers that may put pressure on worried students to accept courses that may not be in their best long-term interests.’

It is certainly important that applicants don’t feel they are being rushed into making a decision about accepting an offer, indeed UCAS has agreed to extend the offer deadlines for two weeks to give students more time to consider their position carefully.


“‘… it would be quite wrong for any university or college to respond to the coronavirus crisis by making unconditional offers that may put pressure on worried students to accept courses that may not be in their best long-term interests.”

Office for Students (OfS)

Implications for international student recruitment

There is another major question that will play on the collective mind of the universities’ admissions officers: what will be the impact on the recruitment of international students?

Most universities are heavily reliant on the fee income from international undergraduate and postgraduate students. There are about 0.5 million international students studying in the UK, representing about 20% of the student population. Universities UK calculated that the overall economic impact of the 2015-16 cohort of international students is in excess of £20 billion. If there is a significant drop in the numbers of students who come into the UK, this will have a major impact on almost every university, but particularly those that are research intensive, and on the economy as a whole.

The impact on the admissions system

So, the 2020 university admissions round will be a particularly challenging and high-stakes process for the DfE, for students and for universities. What will not require crystal-ball gazing is that the experience of this process will again open the long-standing debate about how admissions are managed and that the sector should move to a post-qualifications admissions system.


For more from Jon, have a read of this post about how student engagement is changing and interconnected with student wellbeing and satisfaction. Or if you have questions for Jon, you can get in touch with him directly on Twitter at @jon_scott.