We spoke to Mike Nicholson, Director of Undergraduate Admissions at the University of Bath, about the key things for students to consider when making decisions about university.
There's no denying it's an uncertain time for young people, but what reasons do Year 13 students have to be excited about starting university this autumn?
First of all, students should be aware that universities are looking to make sure there’s as much of a student experience for them as we can possibly offer. We’re not going at this blind. At Bath, we’ve had 600 students on campus throughout lockdown so we’ve had to find ways of building a community and providing them with all the academic and social support they need, while maintaining social distancing.
The student union has built a strong lockdown community with quizzes, skills demonstrations, and online salsa dancing and cooking shows. They’ve organised a full graduation evening with DJ sets from clubs in town and cocktail/mocktail making workshops, to make sure students get a proper send-off. All of this has helped inform how we will run freshers week and social events when students join in September.
From the academic side, we’ve spent the last few months adjusting exam arrangements and learning how to run things with social distancing restrictions while maintaining academic rigour. We’ve actually found some things work better! Well set-up online lectures allow subtitles and students can pause and rewind them, which can actually make them easier to follow than in a large lecture theatre. Lectures can then be supplemented with small group discussion sessions with staff. This move towards blended learning with recorded lectures and more small group teaching means students will have more one-to-one interaction.
This week was the deadline for students to confirm their firm and insurance choices on UCAS. What advice would you give to students who are still considering requesting to defer their Sept 2020 place to Sept 2021?
At Bath, when students ask to defer, we check that they’ve really thought about their decision and have researched what they’ll do in their gap year. My advice to students considering deferral would be to go away and research if you’ll be able to find gainful employment or an internship. Or, if you’re thinking of going travelling, have you thought about whether travel will be possible to the countries you want to visit?
If students come back to us and say they’re absolutely sure deferring is the right thing for them, we’ll defer. If they don’t make their grades this year, we’re guaranteeing them an offer of a place for 2021 once they’ve re-sat their exams.
Saying this, out of the 17,000 offers we’ve given out this year, we’ve only had 35 students request deferral and 20 students who previously applied for deferred places have now asked to bring that place forward to September 2020.
As we come out of lockdown, we’re starting to test how aspects of university life such as lab work and team sports will work. Over the next six weeks, we hope to have provided students with all the information about what university will look like for the academic year so they can make an informed decision about whether a September 2020 start is for them.
If students do choose to defer, how can they use their time wisely between now and Sept 2021?
In addition to finding gainful employment or an internship, I’d say the most important thing is boosting their digital skills. These skills will be essential in a world where more will be done online involving differing technology and platforms.
The current Year 12 will probably be better prepared for the future of Higher Education than the current Year 13 who had come to the end of teaching and probably haven’t had experience of online assessments. I’d really encourage all Year 13s, whether they’re deferring or not, to spend time honing their digital skills in preparation for university.
Should Year 12 students who are beginning to research their options for post-18 be worried about their applications for a Sept 2021 start?
I don’t see why they should be. There’s lots in the press about a huge rise in applications for 2021 as a result of mass deferral but we haven't seen this at Bath. I think these numbers were based on two surveys conducted very early on in the pandemic but talking to colleagues at other universities, they don't seem to be seeing large numbers of deferrals either.
In terms of concerns about the university experience, yes it will be different but a lot of the experience will remain – the new academic challenges, meeting new people, leaving home, and gaining independence.
One of the things students are most concerned about is accommodation. How do you see this working with social distancing restrictions in place?
At Bath, your flat of six to eight students will become your household and so we’re putting a lot of thought into how you build a community around your flat. We’re hiring existing students as accommodation ambassadors to engage with students when they arrive and help build a sense of community in a flat. They’re there to help students settle in and develop a sense of identity and community.
We’re planning on pairing students up with someone else doing the same subject as them so they’ll have someone in the flat for academic support. This is an idea that will probably continue in other areas of the university in peer supported learning – for example, students will be set group tasks in their bubble.
Finally, if students have any particular circumstances that will require access to particular types of accommodation because of medical or mental health conditions it is important they engage with the University in advance of taking up their place. If a student hasn’t yet declared their need for additional support I suggest they do this now, rather than waiting to receive their results, as it can often take time to put in place the appropriate support required.
Moving forward, what positives do you think the HE sector will take from the COVID-19 crisis?
As a sector, we’ll be thinking more about the individual needs of students, as not all students will be able to engage in the same way. We’ve learnt valuable lessons about how we can do things differently which we may not have considered before in terms of accommodation, teaching, and the student community. In society as a whole, we usually plan for the majority and everyone else has to fit in the best they can. The crisis has taught us how we can be more tailored in supporting individuals to engage in activities that work best for them.