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HE admissions - an unplanned 2020

  By Dan Shaffer   - Wednesday 02 December 2020

Effective HE admissions is all about planning ahead; predicting and responding to recruitment challenges to provide students for the future. There are always so many external challenges and it doesn’t take much to put even the best laid plans under threat. We should all have assessed the risks to our plans and had contingencies in place, but few, if any, were prepared for anything on the scale of the Covid-19 pandemic. The new risk is that we may not have learned from that challenge.

Glossing over the problems

There’s no doubting the monumental effort universities and colleges went to in response to the first lockdown, the upheaval to normal working practices and the tireless dedication of admissions staff. That’s why the Times Higher Education recently gave its 2020 Outstanding Achievement Award collectively to all UK HE admissions teams. However, with the main student entry for 2020 complete, some are already viewing such ‘success’ too literally. Preliminary UCAS figures indicate acceptances in 2020 were up 4% on the previous years and, despite all the criticism of the government’s late changes to results, 89% of applicants with revised grades were placed at their firm or insurance choice. On paper, it looks like a great year, so why all the fuss?

An unequal picture

We must not let the complacency of the national picture allow people to forget the issues or overlook the huge disparity in the apparent success of 2020. That 4% increase in acceptances was not evenly spread: the highest third of institutions based on tariff points had 12% growth; whilst the lowest third saw no growth. Within that, many institutions saw all their hard work result in a decline in student numbers and colleges offering HE were more likely to be on the receiving end of that drop.

Colleges were far less likely than their high-tariff counterparts to have additional resources (funds, staff and IT) to quickly redeploy to the emergency, especially where HE represented a small percentage of their income and budget. Those same colleges were also simultaneously reacting to the impact on their own FE students. The priorities in a college will not have been the same as those in a large university and, whilst it is great the HE admissions sector as a whole is recognised for their achievements, it is not ‘job done’, even for the best-resourced institution.

Three things to remember

There are so many aspects to the 2020 entry cycle that had a disproportionate impact on individual institutions, but I’ll focus on just three broad factors that we cannot allow to be forgotten.

1. Staff

Most institutions had contingencies for a short-term evacuation of their main site and temporary disruption. Far fewer had plans in place for long-term homeworking, especially for areas like admissions, where suspension of teaching and learning makes no difference to demands. The IT and logistical requirements were staggering, especially for all the institutions that didn’t have a large-scale remote working procedure already in place. That meant some admissions teams were effectively shut down when the lockdown first started in March. The speed with which staff regained access to admissions software and communication channels (and in many cases the speed those networks operated at home) defined the backlog that awaited staff. I know many never really caught up. At the institution I was working with over this period it felt like we’d just got everyone settled into working from home when we started talking about the issues for returning to the office. I am immensely proud of how my team stepped up to face all the challenges in 2020, but every manager needs to keep reminding themselves that such exceptional effort cannot be maintained indefinitely.

2. Students

Everything we did internally to continue working would have made little difference if students had decided not to come. Early into the pandemic response there were numerous theories about how students would respond. High on the list was that applicants would choose to defer their place, or not start at all. Those who did start in 2020 would choose to study locally or pick online-only courses. In the end, the pattern was mostly in line with historical trends, suggesting students were a more resilient and reliable factor than many gave them credit for. Communication, however, was key: understanding applicant behaviour, making them feel informed and working together to shape views. Engaging with applicants was the best way to predict what they would do, but such engagement was resource intensive. If an institution didn’t have a system to carry much of that communication load, and with human resources in high demand elsewhere, it would have been difficult to gain a meaningful insight into applicants’ concerns, let alone respond to them.

3. Results

I was fortunate to be working somewhere that recognised early on that Ofqual’s planned algorithm for conferring A Level results would be unfair. We put a sliding scale of alternatives in place, including teacher assessments, for all qualifications to minimise any disadvantage. As such, we were unaffected by the government U-turn, the changes to results after confirmation and the disturbing confusion it caused. Colleges were also on the receiving end for unravelling this chaos for their FE students at the same time as trying to unpick the implications for their HE intake. Beyond A Level, some smaller awarding bodies and individual centres weren’t able to confer results on time. The lack of communication, uncertainty, poor judgement, in-built unfairness and late changes for awards was the antithesis of what should happen in HE admissions. Ofqual’s algorithm, based on applying the trends of previous students to the performance of others, should also stand as a cautionary testament to the dangers of making assumptions purely on historic data and of adopting a system without fully understanding how it impacts others.

Planning 2021

At this stage we cannot say what the state of the pandemic will be throughout 2021, but if we are to learn anything from 2020 it should be to avoid complacency. We should not take our staff for granted, we need to connect more with our applicants and we must decide for ourselves what impact the pandemic has had and will have on those applying for 2021. We are responsible for deciding who to admit to our own institutions and we don’t have to wait until the summer to plan how we will respond.

Dan Shaffer was previously Head of Professionalism in Admissions for the Supporting Professionalism in Admissions (SPA) programme where he developed their good practice guidance on areas of the applicant experience, equality and planning, and managing admissions. Dan is currently an independent consultant on fair admissions.

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