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Making university work for this year’s student intake

September 14, 2021

This year a lot of recent school/college leavers have done well in their ‘A’ Level assessments. So well in fact that more students who wanted to attend university may be able to access their preferred choice. For those that delayed last year due to the pandemic, this may pose additional pressures. 44.8% of students attained an ‘A*’ or ‘A’ grade and with 70% of students receiving a ‘B’ Grade or better this year, a four-percentage point increase since last year. This presents an increasing pressure on universities, as more students meet the grade profile required for the terms of their UCAS offer.  University towns and cities are now faced with the very real prospect of larger than ever numbers of eager university students pouring into their streets, and universities with the opportunity to enrol more students through increasing capacity to meet this surge. If this is poorly managed it could result in poor outcomes for both student and the university.

Some may have benefited from the learning and assessment modalities that had to be introduced because of the pandemic. Yet over the last 18 months many others may consider that they were denied the normal teaching experience they deserved due to Covid-19. They have been isolated in their homes, denied ‘in-person’ interaction with peers, and others their own age, and are consequently feeling frustrated. The issue of lockdowns and the unfair treatment of their generation has been the subject of some discussion. It may seem unfair that they faced this situation as a consequence of a disease for which they would possibly have suffered little consequence. They now sense freedom, and may not relish attending university, only to have a repeat of last year’s isolation and missed interaction with their peers. Although current opinion suggests it is unlikely that we will face another lockdown of activity on the scale of 2020, new teaching and assessment methods, if insensitively introduced, may be received in a negative light.

Society generally has been through quite a trauma since March 2020, so sensitivity to lockdown’s less desirable policy actions, may lead to resistance to too much revolutionary change in the way universities move to function in a post-Covid world. This reticence may be seen against a backdrop of horror stories about students being locked into their accommodation blocks, behind security fencing, with inadequate supplies, and being expected, despite suffering some of the effects of Covid, to continue studies, albeit via online learning sessions and podcasts.  Combined with an environment where the higher education sector has been operating in the face of some hostility.

The government is promoting equality of university learning with technical and vocational training, particularly for ethnic and socio-economic groups that are seen as underserved by the sector. Some media sources have widely reported the view that some universities may be providing poor value for money.

It may be fair to conclude, that large cohorts of enthusiastic students, flush with their ‘A’ level success, may quickly lose their eagerness, if their experience is marred by a messy introduction to university life.

How does a university convey the value in tuition fees, when students are compelled to listen to a lecture via a podcast or zoom, instead of visiting an impressive lecture theatre in a prestigious or well-equipped university building? The argument that large lecture sessions provide a poor means with which to impart knowledge, may ring hollow in the minds of a clientele that may take a more cynical view of such an approach.

Are we suggesting then, that either a hybrid or blended learning approach is a bad idea? That universities should go back to the way things were, because we have all had our fill of change? No, it is perhaps more a case that the sector needs to take a cautious approach as it engages with this year’s student intake. What is really being suggested, is that communication is the key. Students more than ever need to be taken with us, on this journey. They need to feel that they are at the centre of any move to change, rather than feeling that they are just being affected by university decisions. It should not be the case, that change is impacted, in consultation with a few vocal activists who purport to represent the views of the wider student population.

Universities need to measure the views and experience of the silent majority. These will quietly get on with things, but their perceptions will colour the views of future generations of students in a deeper more profound way than a vocal minority. New modalities of teaching have to be implemented because they benefit the student. The levels of support for each individual should be commensurate with their needs. If they can see the merits of the university’s approach, they will embrace it. After all, they are the brightest cohort to-date, so let us treat them as such.

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