This year, students have a better chance of getting into a top university

You may have read some recent articles encouraging school leavers to defer their place at university because of the coronavirus pandemic. The arguments for this approach typically focus on two points: that any form of digital education isn’t real learning and if there is still social distancing in place then you won’t have a real university experience. As a university leader, I would like to debunk both.

Most UK universities planning in-person teaching from autumn, poll finds

Since universities ceased face-to-face teaching in March, we have moved all of our teaching online. This was easier for some courses than others, but both staff and students have used creativity, digital skills and critical problem-solving to make it a success. The result has been very positive. We have examples of students digitally delivering the most practical of projects and many students report a high quality of teaching and connection with each other. In the next academic year we will aim to provide as much face-to-face teaching as possible and I expect that we will be able to comfortably and safely deliver lots of seminars and group learning together.

The easing of the UK’s lockdown is changing every day and we are responding positively. However, it seems unlikely that large theatre-style lectures will be feasible for the autumn term, so most universities will take a “blended” approach – a mix of both face-to face and digital teaching. My message to school leavers is that this is nothing to fear. The UK has many of the best universities in the world and we have already adapted to deliver excellent, high-quality teaching online.

Then we come onto social life. We have heard a real concern that students won’t have the rites of passage that come with the freshers’ experience – the opportunity to meet others, join societies, party and discover their new surroundings. I do understand this concern but, again, we are very skilled in delivering an excellent student experience and we won’t let the current challenges prevent that.

Universities and our students’ unions are working tirelessly to plan for every eventuality September may bring. We will offer the best introductory experience possible within the government guidelines at the time. There may not be packed club nights – not at first – but there will be plenty of opportunities to make new friends, join activities and meet your teachers and researchers in departments. In Sheffield, our students union is immensely skilled at providing activities for students and have already been planning socially distanced events. Meanwhile, student societies are already hosting activities online, ranging from meditation classes and baking tutorials to dance groups and music festivals.

Now for some good news: this year may be one of the best opportunities to choose a good university in recent memory. The demographic dip means that there are fewer 18-year-olds in the UK this year. Competition for the best universities could hugely work in applicants’ favour – there may be choice now that won’t be available next year. My advice to school leavers is to aim high. Even if you firm up an existing offer or if you haven’t yet applied for a place, via clearing and adjustment you have an opportunity to apply for competitive courses at some of the world’s best universities. Next year, when the number of school leavers rises again, you may find competition much tighter, so applicants wanting to defer should think carefully.

‘Students like the flexibility’: why online universities are here to stay

We also need to be honest with students about what a year out might actually look like in 2020/21. Every year, a number of students defer to spend time gaining valuable work experience or travelling and volunteering abroad. Nothing is certain, but it looks like these opportunities may not be readily available for UK school leavers this year. It may be better for school leavers to begin their studies now, increase their employability, and to integrate study abroad terms, years or projects into their university experience when this is possible.

I recognise that this may feel like a particularly daunting time for young people in the UK and beyond. Dealing with a global pandemic and all the uncertainties that come with it was never part of the plan. But universities will weather this storm well – and we are here to make sure that you do too.

  • Professor Koen Lamberts is the vice-chancellor of the University of Sheffield

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