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On Tuesday 28th of April, IDP Connect hosted a webinar exploring UK Student attitudes and behaviour data amidst Covid-19.

Within this webinar attendees were given insight from a bespoke student survey, undertaken by IDP connect, in order to gain real insight into not just what prospective students were planning regarding their 2020 studies, but their fears, thoughts and needs during the current coronavirus pandemic and beyond.

Here, we will dive deeper into the survey data and explore its implications for the sector, in addition to responding to some of the questions posed by the webinar attendees.

Who took the survey?

The initial survey received 567 student responses, collected over 2 weeks from April 1st to April 15th, 271 of which were year 13 students. It is this demographic, students in Year 13 looking into beginning undergraduate courses, which we will focus on in the following article. Due to insufficient responses from S6 students, it would not be possible to accurately extrapolate and make statements about S6 students in general, so we will not be including them here.

Student responses to the survey were well spread across the UK, the majority coming from London 16.09%, South East England 15.10%, and Scotland 11.63%, but with representation from all regions in the UK including 6.93% from Wales.

Are students looking to change their study plans due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic?

When asked whether they would be changing their study plans over half of UK students, 58.38% said that they were not planning on changing their study plans despite the impact of the coronavirus.

However, nearly a quarter, 23.46%, answered that yes, they were planning to change their study plans and a further 18.17% responded that they were undecided as to whether to continue or change their plans.

This is an average across all the students who responded to our survey, however, if we segment the students the picture becomes more complex. We will explore the views of mature and postgraduate students in a further article, but if we focus on year 13 students we can already see deviations from the average.

Year 13 students were very slightly less likely than other students to change their plans, with 58.6% reporting that they would not be altering their higher education plans and 21.34% saying they were expecting to change their plans. However, year 13 students also had a higher than average degree of uncertainty, with 20.06% reporting that they did not know whether to change their plans or not.

With over a fifth of year 13 students reporting that they have yet to decide on their higher education plans, how the sector interacts and supports these students could have a big impact on the 2020 intake and beyond.

2020 or 2021?

Taken as a whole, a majority of 72.43% of year 13 students reported they were planning on beginning their studies in 2020 while nearly a fifth, 19.12%, reported they were planning on beginning their studies in 2021.  However, when filtered to focus on students who had changed their study plans, only 59.68% of students reported that they were planning on beginning their studies in 2020, a decline of 12.75%. Although this is a striking decline, it nevertheless indicates that the majority of students who are now planning to change their study plans are likely to be focusing on changing course or institution, rather than deferral.

Year 13 students who have changed their study plans are 3.46% more likely to be looking to start their studies in 2021, at 22.58%, so there is a slight gravitation towards deferral in students looking to change their study plans. However, the biggest difference is when we compare how many students report uncertainty about their future. Of all year 13 students, 5.51% reported being unsure about when they would begin their studies. Of year 13 students who have changed their study plans, more than double, 12.9%, reported that they were not sure when they would begin their studies.

This highlights the confusion and uncertainty in students who are looking to change their study plans, a demographic whose final decisions could make a huge difference in terms of how the intake will look over the next two years. If correctly supported and engaged, these students may be persuaded away from deferral and instead opt for a new course or institution. Alternatively, if beginning their studies in 2021 is a better option for them, this is a unique opportunity for institutions to build their brand awareness and recognition amongst engaged students as they re-enter the top of the funnel.

The impact of the A-level results day announcement

As our initial survey took place before the announcement that A-level grades would be published on the 13th August went public, we felt it would be important to see whether and how this announcement affected students’ higher education plans.

So, we undertook a second, shorter survey to find out whether the A-levels announcement had led to any more or fewer students changing their study plans, from which we received over 1000 student responses.

As the graph above shows, the A-levels announcement seems to have served as a huge disincentive for Year 13 students to begin their studies in 2020. Prior to the announcement, 72.43% of year 13 students were planning on starting their studies in 2020, which dropped to 61.5% after the announcement, a decline of over 10%.

The majority of the students no longer planning to study in 2020 appear to be opting for deferral. The number of students who reported planning on starting their studies in 2021 rose by 15.33% after the A-levels results day announcement. This suggests that if students feel they are unlikely to get onto a course they want or a chosen university, they will opt for deferral and a chance to start again. Any institutions willing to reduce course criteria will need to make sure they express this to potential students clearly and in time to avoid losing them until at least the next intake.

The dramatic difference in response from year 13 students before and after the A-level results day announcement tells us that students are not just paying attention, but are also highly sensitive to government and university decisions that may impact on factors like their grades and ability to attend the course or institution they originally planned. They are adaptive and will make their decisions based on the latest information, which suggests that any new announcements or shocks, and in particular how “fair” A-level grades are considered to be on results day, could again impact on student decision making. It is therefore critical for institutions to be keeping on top of the latest information and sharing their policies, actions and advice with students, during the run-up to and on A-level results day itself, as well as on into the first term. Clearing could well prove to be even more important than the data currently indicates as students finally receive one of the most important pieces of decision-making information, their grades.

Of the year 13 student who had changed their study plans, 23.97% reported choosing to defer their studies by a whole year, almost twice as many than as would consider starting in January instead of September which was 13.22%. While very few students, just 1.65%, would consider taking online courses instead, just over a third, 33.88%, reported that they would consider either studying a different course or attending a different university.

This means that, while nearly a quarter of year 13 students who change their study plans are looking into deferral for a year, they are even more likely to consider changing their choice of university, subject or course. This information is particularly important for 2020, as it indicates that the clearing period will form an even more crucial part of students decisions with those students who have decided to study in 2020 but change their original plan looking to find the best course for them in these new circumstances.

While this additional uncertainty does pose challenges for institutions who are ill-prepared for Clearing 2020, it is also a huge opportunity to appeal to this important demographic of students.

On the day of the A-level results day announcement, IDP's sites Whatuni and Complete Univesity guide saw a considerable spike in traffic, demonstrating that when new information becomes available students are looking to these sources of information to support their decision making. In preparation for new announcements and information coming to light in the run up to A-level results day, IDP Connect has launched a range of new, highly targeted features on both Whatuni and the rebranded Complete University Guide to support students in making the best choice and institutions in reaching this vital group of students. These new features are specifically designed to put appropriate institutions in front of highly engaged and intelligently targeted prospective students, who are actively investigating their higher education options.

So, what are Year 13 students worried about?

Students reported a wide variety of concerns, from grades to finances to whether and how their university experience will be affected.

What students are most concerned about depends largely on whether they have decided on their higher education plans and, if so, what decision they have made.

When looking at all the students (regardless of whether they were changing study plans) 2 of the top 3 concerns, including the top concern, were about final A-level or equivalent grades and whether their final grades will be worse because of the impact of the coronavirus on exams. Concerns regarding their reduced capacity to study under lockdown and prospective changes to how their higher education experience might be affected, from course deliver to start dates, also ranked highly.

Another priority concern for students, particularly those continuing with their original study plans, is whether or not their university course will start on time, whether they would be able to make the right university choices, and whether the university experience will be impacted upon because of the coronavirus.

When we filter the responses by Year 13 students who have changed their study plans, different concerns rank the highest.

Although concerns regarding their grades also rank within the top three, mind changers report that their reduced ability to study during the lockdown and the repercussions this could have is their highest concern.  Mind changers are also more concerned than their peers about issues such as what their university’s policy is on deferred entry and whether they will be able to get accommodation, which reflects their stronger likelihood to change course or institution.

Financial issues are also a higher concern for mind changer student, which has a big role to play in students’ abilities to take on Higher education studies.

 Open Days

One of the most significant issues for year 13 students, whether or not they were planning on changing their study plans, was the prospect of a lack of open days. The high levels of worry over a lack of open days for these students can be contextualised by the previous findings that these students are more likely to change course or university and want to know that they are making the right decision. This highlights the importance of communicating and supporting these students with information, as well as indicating that virtual open days and video could prove extremely popular with deferring students and thus greatly benefit institutions who use these new technologies.

Indeed, focusing in on the prospect of virtual open days, 43.16% of all year 13 students responded that they would be relying on virtual tours and open days, as did nearly a third, 30.30%, of mind-changing students. This feedback demonstrates that, while open days are important, virtual open days and virtual tours are considered a good alternative by students, whether they are planning on changing their study plans or not, and could be a crucial part of student recruitment for Clearing 2020 as much if not more than for the 2021 intake.

Students who were changing their study plans were also more interested in the insights of students already at university if open days were unavailable, and were much more likely, 18.18% compared to 8.51% of their peers, to wait until open days were to become available again in the future before making a decision. This would suggest that the inability to visit a university before making a decision may be part of these student’s decision to delay choosing a university until visiting physically is possible, but that accounts from peers already at universities may be a useful aspect of alternative solutions.

A question that so far remains unanswered is how and to what extent students are aware of and know about virtual open days and online alternatives and how they work.

What support do students want?

Important as analysing student decisions and concerns during the coronavirus pandemic is, this information is only useful when incorporat4d into tangible actions and outcomes which support students.

In order to enable this, our survey asked year 13 students specifically what kind of support they wanted and needed from both their current and future education institutions.

As with student concerns, there is a contrast between those who want to change their plans and those who don’t, as seen in the graph below.

Students who are sticking to their plans are highly interested in university-related information from application evaluation to admission dates to start dates to information on what a universities online course provision might be like.

On the other hand, for students who are wanting to change their plans, there is a drop in interested in university-related information and an increase in alternative pathways. For these students, there is much more of a focus on what is happening here and now. There is also a much stronger interest in financial support like fee waivers and some form of counselling to advise students how to change study or career plans in the current context which, if met by an institution, could greatly enhance both their brand and prospects for student recruitment.

All students were most concerned with understanding exactly how end-of-year evaluations will work this year, an issue which was even more of a priority for students who were planning to change their study plans.

We’ve already seen that new information, such as the A-level results day announcement, can have a significant impact on student behaviour. We have also shown that many year 13 students have a high degree of uncertainty about their future studies, have a broad spectrum of concerns high in their mind, and appear to still feel uninformed about key issues such as how they will be graded.

What information do students want?

When asked what type of information they were looking for all students, whether changing their plans or not, showed a strong preference for information on COVID-19 and how this would affect university start dates, as well as expressing a high demand for advice on how to dispute grades and advice for preparation for studies in the context of the current pandemic and lockdown. Whether a student is expecting to begin their university course, take a gap year or return to school and possibly retake their exams, fear of a decline in their academic prowess is a high concern.

These findings correlate neatly with the concerns highlighted earlier, over students being able to get onto their preferred course or institution, and the need students feel for the latest information in order to make decisions.

Students who were changing their study plans showed a stronger preference than their peers for information regarding clearing and self-release, again highlighting their worries over obtaining a place this year, and were significantly more interested in advice about deferred entry and gap years.

Where are students getting their information?

At present, students are receiving their information from a broad and varied range of sources, from national press to communications with their chosen institution. In our survey, emails from their schools and chosen university emerged as the most relied upon source of information, with year 13 students responding that emails from their university were their top source of information.

General media, such as the Guardian and Telegraph and specialist education sites such as Whatuni and the Complete University Guide also ranked second, with university websites coming in third.

While it is promising that students consider communications from their schools and institution key sources of information, this also puts the pressure on institutions to ensure they are providing regular and accurate updates. There is an expectation from students that institutions take on the role of keeping them informed as to the latest developments and how this could impact upon them. The preference for email overuse of the university website (although both ranked highly), also shows that students expect personal and proactive communication from educational institutions.

Another point of interest is that over half year13 students reported their friends and family as key sources of news and information. This highlights that, both during this current period of uncertainty and more broadly, parents and peers are a key influencer is students’ higher education decisions. As such, institutions should consider ways in which they can reach out to and support those closest to students as part of their service.

Across IDP Connect’s sites, and specifically on the new and redesigned Complete University Guide, there are multiple areas and specialist articles created to help guide and support parents through their child’s higher education decision and application processes.

What this all tells us

The feedback from our survey has provided real insight into what higher education choices year 13 students are likely to take. From our survey, it seems that over half of this demographic will continue with their higher education choices as planned, whether that was to start in 2020 or 2021. We have also found that over 40% of this demographic are looking to change their study plans, which will likely lead to a higher intake in 2021 but is also going to make Clearing in 2020 particularly important as many students look to optimise their opportunities by changing course or institution.

It is more important than ever that institutions are reaching, engaging with, and supporting students across a broad spectrum of mediums and to address various needs. New technologies and services will be a key part of that, but institutions must choose the right ones. For example, very few students were interested in online course delivery but there was a considerable appetite for virtual events, peer to peer communication and live chat, and virtual open days.

IDP Connect is in the process of developing and releasing products which directly address the challenges of both Clearing 2020, meet new virtual event expectations, and prepare for future intakes. For more information about the new opportunities and products now available, such as the redesigned Complete University Guide website, as well as those in the pipeline like live chat, virtual events on Whatuni, and ASK IDP, institutions are invited to reach out to us at: ukclientsteam@idp-connect.co.uk

  • Special thanks to Anda Gruian, UX researcher at IDP Connect, for undertaking this research and data analysis.

CP - Image - Headshot - Ella Grimwade - UK
Ella Grimwade06 May 2020