There is a great deal of hard work going on amongst staff across higher education as they develop online provision for the next academic year, in a case of planning for the worst and hoping for the best. I am left wondering though, what do students and applicants think of the possible shift to online? This question is relevant to me in my work role, but also as a parent of a 2020 applicant.

I set up some conversations with five eighteen- and nineteen-year old people in my life (all male), to try to understand how they are feeling about the prospect of starting their studies online, or mainly online (subject areas Economics, Accounting & Finance, Music, English, Data Science). I asked two questions. How do you feel about going to university in autumn 2020? And How would you feel if your studies were online? With their permission I am sharing back a summary of their responses. I should add that this exercise has been to gain personal insight and it is not a substitution for any activities in my own institution. I don’t claim that these responses are representative, but they do show a small insight in to the incredibly difficult choices facing young people.

Perceived challenges of starting a new programme in 2020

  • Social distancing might spoil the experience. Won’t be able to experience the city.
  • Uncertainty over arrangements (what will university look like now?).
  • Pandemic based health concerns (risk of being ill).
  • Worries about anxiety & stress (pandemic and transition at the same time).
  • Fear about lack of jobs in some areas after graduation.
  • Risk of missing out on practical classes.
  • Worries about online learning (“Will I cope?” “It’s not what I wanted” …”I can’t get motivated online” ..”Don’t know what online learning looks like” … “in the past I have struggled because you can’t really ask questions”).
  • Will the fees be worth it with a different experience? – “there would have to be a sizeable discount if I am going to do the first term online”.
  • Family finances have changed.Uncertainty over grades – with the way they are to be calculated, I am not sure I will get what I need.
  • Don’t want to risk being isolated on campus.
  • I might reconsider going local, at least then if things go wrong I am not far from home, I can basically work from home.

Perceived positives of starting a new programme in 2020

  • I still want to do my course by any means – my ambitions are unchanged.
  • Don’t want to waste a year.
  • Not many other options – don’t know what I could do instead, I think there aren’t so many apprenticeships now, or some might be at risk.
  • Uni will delay work in hope that the economy will bounce back by the time we leave.
  • All in it together – we can make it work.
  • Already committed to accommodation.
  • Optimistic that we can just get started.
  • I need to ‘get going’ after a very long period at home.
  • Might provide a gentle start to Uni and give more time to settle in before I actually get there.
  • Starting online means I can help out at home if there is a second wave

I heard a mixture of optimism and confusion, as well as anxiety and acceptance. From just five conversations it is clear that there is much we could do to engage those making unenviable choices about becoming a student in 2020. I’m advocating that we involve students (current and future) and bring them along on this uncharted path, so that change is both ‘with’ and ‘for’ students. In reality, this might include:

  • Share a picture of what the proposed online learning experience looks like, and hear concerns about any elements that are problematic.
  • Talk honestly with applicants about the uncertainty, and offer reassurance that we are working to find ways forward.
  • Start building links with and between students to create an early sense of belonging and community – clearly, we are stronger in this together (can eLearning/TEL teams help with this?).
  • Provide certainty where we can, or at least a set of scenarios to help decision making, then get feedback to refine the way forward.
  • Openly acknowledge and address the fears of applicants, and share some of the positives (there genuinely are some and to hear these discussed is heartening).
  • Consider providing some optional preparatory course materials to applicants to strengthen links and to address worries about any gaps resulting from the premature ending of studies.
  • Consider whether professional/industry experts can provide encouragement about the long-term prospects associated with a subject area or profession, where this is reasonably possible.

The sense of confusion, the lack of exams and closure on secondary education, as well as collective concern all came through in the conversations, but so too did optimism and a sense of togetherness. Information, honesty, community and kindness seem key to supporting these individuals who will be like no other entry cohort. These suggestions are only in response to the points raised in my own conversations with friends, much more work is needed to engage at scale with current students and applicants.

(Credit to Spencer Arnold for help in pulling this together).