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HEi-know Good Practice Briefing: UK universities describe "amazing" shift to online delivery

Universities across the UK have rapidly moved their learning, teaching and assessment online in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The unprecedented overhaul of traditional teaching practices has presented a major challenge to institutions, staff and students. In this Good Practice Briefing, HEi-know shows how some universities have responded to the situation.

World events highlight stark inequalities in HE

Sutton Trust associate director of media and communications Hilary Cornwell and research and policy assistant Maariyah Dawood comment on equality and widening access issues that have emerged in a week of higher education news.

Government and employers must match HE’s positive moves on equality

Reviewing a week of higher education news, Action on Access Director Andrew Rawson celebrates positive action on equality and social inclusivity taken in the HE sector and calls for matching support from the government and employers.

Removal of statues is “censoring the past”, warns universities minister

The universities minister has strongly criticised the renaming of university buildings and the removal of statues prompted by the Black Lives Matter movement as “short sighted” and an attempt to censor the past.

Universities struggle to 'keep all the balls in the air'

As domestic students make their final decisions about which universities to go to, universities are endeavouring to reassure them that campus life would be back to ‘near normal’ by September. Meanwhile international student numbers are looking shaky, while higher education is being sucked into debates around the Black Lives Matter campaign. Tristram Hooley, Chief Research Officer of the Institute of Student Employers explains why he doesn’t envy Vice Chancellors right now.

Students feel "abandoned or ignored" by universities they have applied to, study finds

Research by Pickle Jar Communications has found that while most prospective students in the UK are still planning to go to university, many do not feel they are being provided with Information they need to address their concerns. Robert Perry, Pickle Jar's head of research and insight, outlines the findings.


Universities are places of tradition. They follow an accepted annual cycle – the academic year, the admissions process, Clearing, welcome weeks, everything else… and although we experience changes to the cycle every now and again, these changes rarely happen in so drastic or immediate a way as happened with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s an overused cliché to say that we’re in an unprecedented situation, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not true. And while we in higher education rapidly adapted (or, at least, tried to adapt) to life under lockdown, the lifeblood of our sector – the students themselves – are also finding their way in extremely unfamiliar territory.

There have been plenty of surveys and polls of students that have attempted to gauge their likely intentions for 2020, and they’re an extremely useful indicator of potential behaviour. But we wanted to find out more about what students were feeling about their situation and what was driving these choices.

Our new report – The impact of the coronavirus pandemic on students preparing for university in 2020 – is the first part of that work. There are a few things that stand out as important:

  • Most students are still planning to attend university. They have different motivations for this – achieving career goals, experiencing the rite of passage that university represents, or a genuine drive to succeed academically. Whatever the reason, they’re still keen to study in September, but – again depending on their motivation - they do have a lot of concerns about online learning or not being able to socialise in the way they would like.? 

  • For those who are motivated by experiencing the full spectrum of university life, the possibility of a socially-distanced campus, or an online start in September, is not appealing. They are willing to defer or change university to increase the chance they can have what they see as a “real” student lifestyle.?

  • Some students believe that the fees they pay for university are supposed to incorporate this entire experience – social aspects, teaching, support services – so would not be happy to receive what they would perceive as a lower level of service for the same cost.?
  • Among those students who have been communicated with by their chosen universities, the most popular things they’ve received have been those that involve real people. Things such as an email from a named member of university staff, an online discussion with other students, and even live Q&As with senior university representatives are seen as effective in making them feel supported.?
  • Unfortunately, most students do not feel that they are being provided with information that addresses their concerns. They acknowledge that there is uncertainty in many areas of life, but they would still like clarity around university admissions and plans for teaching and other aspects of campus life. Because of this, many students feel abandoned or ignored by the universities they have applied to. They feel that the communications they receive - if they receive any at all - do not address their circumstances.

All of this adds up to a cohort of students who are struggling to make decisions with the little information available to them, and having to wait what they believe to be an unfair length of time before they find out what will happen to them next. It’s not surprising under those circumstances that many would consider deferring their decision to a time when there’s more certainty about what their university experience will look like.

There’s an opportunity here for universities to treat students like the people they are, to help them make a choice that’s right for them. Although the financial pressures on HEIs will be immense this year, that doesn’t mean that students should be persuaded to take up a course that won’t work for them. Honesty – as much as possible – will be key. Communicating the work that’s being done to make online teaching effective, talking about social distancing measures, showing the digital communities that students have already created to keep in touch during lockdown – all of these things will demonstrate that applicants’ concerns are being addressed, and that university can still be a positive experience for them.

That way, when they make their choice, they’ll do it in an informed way – and they’ll remember the honesty and humanity of the universities helped them to make it.