UK universities restrict deferrals to protect enrolments

Applicants face ‘mixed messages’ from sector, with institutions adopting varying tactics

July 13, 2020
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Students who are considering deferring their university place because of the disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic face “mixed messages” from UK institutions, with some telling applicants that they are unable to delay their start date.

Although Ucas data suggest that a spike in delayed enrolments is yet to materialise, providers remain fearful that there will be a surge in deferrals for the next academic year, due to uncertainty over how much teaching will be online and what campus life will be like – a scenario that could have a serious effect on institutional finances.

In response, many institutions have placed restrictions on deferrals, or warned students off them. The Royal College of Art has said that it is “not able to offer deferred places” and that anyone relinquishing their place would have to reapply next year. The University of the Arts London said that deferral requests would not be granted if the reasons related to blended learning provision next year.

The University of Edinburgh said that deferral “availability will be limited” to priority cases this year, “to avoid imposing a material disadvantage on 2021 applicants by a reduction in the range of places available to them”.  

The University of Sussex said that “if your reason for deferring is linked to the current global pandemic, we’d encourage you to hold on to your offer for now”.

The University of Cambridge told Times Higher Education that it would make a decision in late August “when we’ll have a clearer picture as to how many requests have been made”.

Some institutions, such as the University of Portsmouth, are still allowing deferrals but ask prospective students to consider how the coronavirus would impact their year off.

The varying responses mean that students hoping to defer could find themselves with very different prospects depending on which institution they are hoping to enrol in.

Simon Marginson, professor of higher education at the University of Oxford, said that “students are getting mixed messages and having to guess their way through all this”.

Institutions were trying to present the next academic year in as positive a light as possible to stop people deferring, he said. “There is this pressure on them to maintain numbers, so they have to muddy the waters…but they are only responding to the situation they are in,” he said.

“The Australian government has said [that] if there is a drop in domestic students it will sustain [universities’] budget. In the UK, if you drop your domestic students, no one protects your position; that’s creating a problem.”

Claire Callender, professor of higher education studies at Birkbeck, University of London and the UCL Institute of Education, cautioned that decisions around deferrals were a “two-way street” for sector leaders.

“Financially, universities need students to take up their places more than ever. But not allowing students to defer if they want could lead to greater dropout rates later down the line,” she said.

Richard Ekman, president of the Council of Independent Colleges, said that there were similar issues in the US, with institutions reacting in different ways.

In order to entice students to begin their studies this autumn, some institutions were trying to recreate gap year experiences – such as work placements or environmental projects – for students in their first term, he said.

But varying policies across institutions “can create confusion”, he said. “Decentralised higher education is a good thing, but in a situation like this it does create problems.”

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Reader's comments (1)

There's an interesting piece on this over on the WonkHE, with many now realising the aging academics don't want to return to F2F teaching due to increased health risks, and unless following the Harvard research Universities are going to actively test every 2 days and quarantine those found to be infected the risks are starting to look mighty bad. Even IF we can pull off building reopening, not so easy as many are riddled with health risks having been closed up but not cleaned for so long, then there's the contaminated water systems unflushed and full of legionella and other nasties to take into consideration...