A survey published by the University and College Union (UCU) reveals that 28% of prospective students were likely to defer their university place to Autumn 2021 as a result of social distancing measures. It shows that 17% more students would defer their place if universities were not “business as usual” by Autumn 2020. In contrast, past deferral rates have been steady at 5-6% for the past 5 years. 

Oxford University discourages offer holders from deferring, stating that they “will not routinely support requests for deferral. Any offer holders with particular, verifiable reasons to wish to defer their place should contact the college which made their offer or open-offer to discuss this.” 

The University’s policy for deferral remains largely unchanged in light of the pandemic, considering requests on an individual case-by-case basis. Oxford notes that a “generic reference to the coronavirus pandemic will not be considered an acceptable ground for deferral.”

Addressing offer-holders, the university stated: “Oxford University and its colleges intend to be open to students at all levels for the 2020/21 academic year and look forward to welcoming you as a new student from the start of the Michaelmas (Autumn) term.”

This comes after some UK universities have released planning of a ‘hybrid’ approach, combining both online and face-to-face teaching. Last week, Cambridge University revealed it will hold all its lectures online in the following academic year, accompanied by the University of Manchester. Oxford University has suggested a merged learning approach, stating that “Face-to-face teaching and research supervision will be complemented by high quality online activities where necessary.” However, there is little consistency in contingency planning across UK universities. 

From the UCU survey results, The Guardian has estimated the pandemic will cost the sector £763 million in lost tuition fees and teaching grants. The UCU said “it was now vital that the government stepped in to protect universities, students, staff and the wider economy from a £6bn shockwave.” 

Cambridge University has lost over £60 million in the Summer term only because of cancelled accommodation and events. Oxford University is estimated to lose up to £40 million in tuition fees. Nevertheless, Oxford and Cambridge are expected to be the least economically impacted out of the Russell Group Universities.

However, the UCU survey is based only on UK domiciled students. Yet, it is expected that the decline in incoming international students for the next academic year will be both greater and have a greater economic impact than a decrease in UK students. International students make up 20% of the whole UK student-body, and 40% of Oxford’s. They often pay over three times more fees than home students. A report by QS revealed that 57% of international students claimed their study abroad plans had been impacted by the pandemic, with 47% of these considering deferring to the next academic year. 

Jo Grady, the UCU General Secretary expressed hopes that these “shocking” results may spur the government into more decisive action. Grady stated: “The current wait-and-see approach from ministers is exacerbating the crisis for prospective students and putting tens of thousands of jobs at universities and in the wider economy at risk.”

“With aspiring students now very worried about what will happen in the autumn, it is time for the government to underwrite higher education and provide the support it needs to guarantee survival.

“We all recognise the uncertainty faced by universities, but it is vital that they work with their communities rather than move to sack staff or treat potential students as little more than bums on seats. I hope this shocking survey will persuade vice-chancellors to join us in lobbying MPs for an urgent underwriting of universities so they can play their full part in our recovery.”

Dr Gavan Colon, Partner of the consultancy London Economics running the survey warned: “’If the current deferral rates as a result of the pandemic are borne out, then the financial consequences facing universities will be even more severe than those identified recently by London Economics. There are a lot of jobs at risk – both in universities in the wider local and regional economies where universities are based.”