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Universities have been thrown into disarray

28 August 2020

As they deal with the fallout of the A-level fiasco, they should prioritise disadvantaged applicants, says John Gay

WHAT will the new university experience be like? The hope is that there will be a blended mixture of as much face-to-face teaching as possible, and online teaching making up the rest. There is some doubt, however, about how much face-to-face teaching will be practicable.

In the United States, where terms have already started, problems have arisen as a result of partying students’ defying social-distancing guidelines, and have led some universities to close their campuses and return to teaching online only. Universities are not in loco parentis, and cannot police students’ social lives, especially when they happen off campus. What the experience is actually like will depend significantly on students’ being willing to accept the social constraints.

Online teaching is not necessarily second best, however. Great strides are being made in developing online interactive learning: needs drive invention. The days of simply watching an hour’s video of a talking-head lecture are fast receding. The main downside, though, rather like home working, is the lack of social interaction. However good the online material and experience is, sitting in front of a screen in your own room all day can be an isolating experience. Online teaching needs to be balanced by opportunities for social interaction through means such as social bubbles.


JUST as universities were completing all their Covid-proofing preparations for the new academic year, along came the omnishambles of the A-level gradings (News, Comment 21 August). Many students who had previously accepted places at their second-choice university suddenly found that their newly improved grading would gain them entry to their first-choice university.

The Universities Minister then promised that all such students would be guaranteed a place at their first-choice university, and, to facilitate this, the cap on student numbers would be lifted. This cap had originally been imposed to protect less popular universities against the predatory ambitions of some of the more popular ones, especially where they were needing to fill the gap left by overseas students.

Many courses at these more popular universities were already full, however, and so students have been encouraged or bribed to take a gap year in return for a guaranteed place at the end of that year. But pre-Covid visions of a well-paid temporary job, followed by six months’ globe-trotting, soon fade into the less attractive reality of a year living at home. Also, the allocation of more places for next year means that there will be fewer available for the coming year’s A-level students.

For the universities themselves, the A-level fiasco could not have come at a worse time. The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Winchester, Professor Joy Carter, who is a member of the Church of England’s national education board, is clear that “these government interventions — starting with the last-minute, unexpected change to calculating results last week, and then the U-turn on Monday [17 August] — have caused utter chaos for applicants and the sector.

“It is still too early to say what the actual impact of this U-turn will be for different universities. However, there is real potential that this will hit some church universities hard.”

This prediction is supported by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which reports that lower-ranking universities may not have enough students to fill all their courses. Ministers were clear that any financial bailouts would be conditional on agreeing to be “restructured”, but, as the problem is now of the Government’s own making, this requirement is likely to be forgotten.

In deciding which of the upgraded students should be admitted in September, and which should be asked to defer for a year, the Minister has asked universities to give immediate priority to those from disadvantaged backgrounds.


CANON Professor Peter Neil, Vice-Chancellor of Bishop Grosseteste University, Lincoln, who chairs the Cathedrals Group of church-related universities, pointed out that the universities of the Cathedrals Group already educated many such disadvantaged students. While he recognised that the removal of the numbers cap would increase competition among universities, he called for them to work together to promote stability for both their own good and that of their students.

The Bishop of Winchester, the Rt Revd Tim Dakin, who is the lead bishop for further and higher education, has welcomed the Government’s commitment to student access and to prioritising students from disadvantaged backgrounds. “This will help to develop a cohort of skilled graduates, capable of meeting the demands of the future,” he said. “Also, I hope that Michael Gove’s focus on public service, apparent in his recent Ditchley Lecture, will lead to a greater recognition of the need to prepare students not only to contribute to the economy, but also to sustain a humane society in a world reeling from the effects of Covid-19.”

At this stage, predicting what is going to happen is very difficult. Universities are waiting to see how many new first-year students turn up, and then how many stay once they experience what is on offer. Only then will the future viability of each of the church universities become clearer. Although the immediate threat of mergers has been lifted, it is likely to return subsequently.


The Revd Dr John Gay is an Honorary Research Fellow in Educa­tion at the University of Ox­­ford, and a Visiting Professor at the University of Winchester.

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