Almost half (48%) of university applicants think that the coronavirus crisis will have a negative impact on their chances of getting into their first-choice university, according to new research by the @SuttonTrust that looks at how the coronavirus crisis is affecting both university applicants and current students.

The research, which surveyed 511 university applicants (pupils aged 17 to 19), finds that working class applicants are more likely to be worried about the impact on them than their middle-class peers (51% vs 43%). The concern amongst young people is likely to stem from changes to how grades will be awarded this year, as well as uncertainty around this year’s university admissions process, such as a potential cap of places. Almost a fifth (19%) of applicants have changed their mind on going to university or are now uncertain about whether to go.

Instead of exams, pupils will get their grades through a combination of teacher assessment, coursework and prior attainment. When asked how they thought these changes would affect them, over two-fifths (43%) of university applicants thought they would have a negative impact on their A level grades. While most university applicants feel that the impact will be small, almost three-quarters (72%) think that the new grading system is less fair than how A-level grades are usually awarded.

Applicants were also asked about their access to learning, resources and technology in the period since sixth forms and colleges closed. Young people reported that many schools are not teaching  content following A level exam cancellations, with a quarter of applicants overall reporting they are not receiving any work from their schools. However, students at private schools were almost twice as likely to be regularly completing work and receiving feedback than those in state schools (57% v 30%). Missing out on A level content means students will be less prepared when they start at university or less prepared for A levels if they decide to sit rescheduled exams in the Autumn.

Today’s report also includes separate polling of 895 current university students. This highlights the financial challenges that current students are facing in the wake of the pandemic. Almost a third (30%) say that they are less able to afford study because of the pandemic, with those outside Russell Group institutions more likely to have financial concerns. One in three (34%) of all the university students that were polled have lost a job, had reduced hours, or not been paid for work since the crisis began. Just over a fifth (22%) report that their parents have been less able to support them financially.

Today’s research follows on from the Sutton Trust’s first impact brief looking at the impact of Covid-19 on school-age pupils. In the report, the Trust makes a series of recommendations to support both university applicants and current students in these challenging times:

  • To make sure the new grading system is as fair as possible, Ofqual should monitor any attainment gaps and consider adjustments if necessary.
  • A cap on places is a cause of concern to university students. If and when they are introduced, they need to be carefully implemented to minimise the impact on disadvantaged students.
  • Further financial support from both the universities and from government should be considered to ensure current students can continue their courses, and access is not harmed for current applicants from poorer homes.
  • The upheaval is also a chance to introduce Post Qualifications Applications. This means that students can make informed choices based on actual rather than predicted grades, which particularly disadvantage high attaining poorer students.

Sir Peter Lampl, founder and chairman of the Sutton Trust, said:

“Today’s research shows there is a huge degree of worry and uncertainty amongst university applicants and current students about how the current crisis will affect them. Almost three-quarters of university applicants think the new grading system is less fair than how A-level grades are usually awarded and half of all students think the crisis will make it harder to get into their first-choice university.

“There are no easy solutions to this unprecedented situation. But what is of upmost importance is that the poorest students don’t lose out. A cap on places is a cause of concern to university students. If and when they are introduced, they need to be carefully implemented to minimise the impact on disadvantaged students.

“The upheaval is also a chance to introduce Post Qualifications Applications. This means that students can make informed choices based on actual rather than predicted grades, which particularly disadvantage high attaining poorer students.”

Dr Mary Bousted, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, said:

“The National Education Union supports the Sutton Trust’s call for universities to make adjustments and provide support so that students are not disadvantaged either in getting places in their preferred university or in settling in and learning when the time comes. Many will have missed aspects of work because of the crisis and may need additional support.

“This has been a stressful and difficult time and students are anxious about the impact of this year's A level changes on their future choices. The arrangements being put in place, however, are intended to support schools and colleges to make the best judgements possible of their students' attainment.

“The system also has a process of standardisation in place to guard against unconscious bias and to make the process as fair as possible.

“Some students find the exam process a disadvantage in normal years and don't necessarily feel that they have performed at their best. It is now time to have a serious overhaul of the way we assess and exam young people and end this system of everything resting on one final set of exams.”

Liberal Democrat Education spokesperson Layla Moran said:

"This report has laid but the stark differences between students who have access to online learning and those who don’t. It is unacceptable that as a result of Covid-19, students from poor backgrounds feel that their futures will have been compromised.

"Ministers must ensure that every child who needs both broadband access and a device to learn on gets it. If we accept the access to education is a human right and if all education is now online, then surely it follows that access to online learning is also a human right."

Youthsight surveyed applicants who applied to university this year through UCAS, with polling carried out online through their applicant omnibus between the 3rd and the 8th of April 2020. The applicant omnibus is weighted to be representative by gender, age and school type. Data here includes 511 university applicants aged 17 to 19, of whom 452 were taking A levels or equivalents. 

Youthsight also surveyed current undergraduate students, with polling taking place online through their student omnibus between the 9th and the 14th of April 2020. The student omnibus is weighted to be representative by Gender, Course Year and University Group (Russell Group, Post 1992 and Pre 1992 institutions). Data here includes 895 home (UK) undergraduate students.   

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