During the spring and early summer speculation abounded that students would shun university places for September, turned off by the prospect of a perceived lesser experience – especially if all of their studies were online. But any concerns about prospective students deferring their university places on mass as a result of the pandemic appear increasingly misplaced. Here, Gurjit Nijjar, Assistant Registrar at the University of Derby discusses why.
In late May 2020, a Youthsight survey of 320 applicants to higher education institutions across England, commissioned by the University of Derby, found that 49% were considering deferring their places. It seemed there were two key factors driving their thinking – 75% of respondents were worried about their exam results in the new and uncertain model of assessment, and 83% were worried about studying online when they started university.
Yet the numbers at the end of July suggest that two months is a long time in a pandemic when it comes to the sentiment of a university applicant. In fact, the latest UCAS data suggests deferrals are actually down by 2% on 2019, with overall applications to universities up by around 1% – despite 2020 being the beginning of the demographic dip in 18-year-old numbers.
At Derby, we’ve seen no change yet in the deferrals pattern. Applicants are taking their time to decide but still wanting to commence university as planned, only a very small number of deferral requests have been received, similar to any other year. UCAS has reported a similar picture across the sector, with more applicants holding a firm offer to start a course this autumn than at the equivalent point last year, and fewer people accepting an offer for a deferred place.
What is a deferral?
An applicant usually has to have met all offer conditions and be in possession of an ‘Unconditional’ place which they have accepted as ‘Firm’ to be eligible to make a deferral request. This is so that applicants are not unfairly holding places when they may not later satisfy requirements.
Applicants can usually ask to defer to the next intake within the academic year – e.g. a March start if available – or the next academic year start.
When making a deferral request to the Admissions Office, applicants are usually expected to include their reasons for deferring and their plans for the period of time in question. The request is then reviewed and accepted/declined at the discretion of the university.
Why would a deferral request be declined?
Although universities have the right to refuse, they are usually open to accepting deferral requests. However, there are valid reasons to decline a request without disclosure of a reason – for instance, the course may not be running for the next intake/academic year, there are expected changes in qualification requirements, or the course is changing in some way.
What are the pros and cons of deferring?
There are any number of reasons why someone might find it beneficial to defer and some students will perhaps still be thinking about waiting a year in order to have a more ‘typical’ start to university life, even though lots of universities – including Derby – are emphasising that the ‘new normal’ will still include on campus teaching and social opportunities.
Some applicants might want to sit examinations to improve the grade they’ve received from the unusual assessment process used instead. Others might have personal reasons – e.g. a family situation – which make deferring a good option for this year.
However, with jobs at a premium and travel limitations in place, careful consideration needs to be given on how a deferral period will be spent. Having spent years in school and college working towards starting university, a gap year without a master plan could impact an applicant’s ability to re-engage with their studies and academic goals. We’ve seen plenty of instances of this in years gone by.
There are other risks too. If a deferral request is accepted, there is no guarantee it can be reversed if you change your mind. This is because by deferring your place, you have given up your place for the current intake and it may well have been replaced by another applicant.
A lot can happen in a year and decisions could be made about your control after your deferral request has been accepted. For example, the course may not run the next year, the course might be revised to keep content current, which could mean removal of a module or change of title, fees could change, etc.
What about the importance of a normal university experience?
We recognise and understand completely the uncertain time for applicants and universities across the country are working hard to ensure they are still able to provide the best experience whilst prioritising safety of applicants, students and staff.
Since the Coronavirus lockdown, we have continued to teach and support our existing students. The university is open and operating, largely but not entirely remotely at this point, though with plans for increasing on-campus activity from next month ahead of the new term starting on 21 September.
Intensive planning has gone into preparing the campus for students and staff, with a range of social distancing measures in place and lots of communication updates being shared with all those expecting to be back on site within the next few weeks. Like many universities we are anticipating a ‘blended’ approach to teaching and learning for the first semester, with a mix of face-to-face small group teaching and virtual lectures. Enrolment and induction plans are being redesigned. Halls of residence remain open for booking, but contracts and refund policies have been adapted to support applicants in response to Covid-19 concerns.
The University has a dedicated webpage for the most up to date information on our Covid-19 preparations and like many universities, we’ve hosted numerous virtual events to give students a sense of what the first semester will be like, which you can sign up to watch retrospectively even now.
What is our advice to a prospective university student considering a deferral?
Deferring is going to be a big decision, just like going to university in the first place was a big decision. So our advice is to discuss your options, and what’s best for you, with parents, friends, family or teachers very carefully before deciding.
I’d also suggest you think back to why you wanted to go to university in the first place as part of trying to contextualise all that’s happened lately. It may be that a slightly different experience or start to university life – for instance, fresher’s week will still have lots happening but it won’t be quite the same as 2019 – isn’t as important as you might be imagining. Thoroughly think through your plans for the gap year – draw up your own list of pros and cons.
We’ve been working flat-out all the way through lockdown and are as contactable as ever to offer information and advice to support your decision-making about starting university. So don’t suffer in silence, talk to your university, talk to more than one university, and see how you feel with more information to draw on.