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UCU calls for government support as poll shows students may defer study and consider changing university

20 May 2020

Government must underwrite loss of income to safeguard the higher education sector and stop competition between universities for students

Universities face an uncertain future as over a fifth of prospective students (22%) could defer going to university, according to a new survey released today (Wednesday). Prospective students also said there was a 25% chance they would consider switching their university, which could lead to a summer of chaos as institutions compete to secure students.

UCU said it was now vital that the government stepped in to protect universities, students, staff and the wider economy from a £6bn shockwave. The union said the current "wait and see approach" from ministers was exacerbating the crisis and causing confusion for students. The University of Cambridge has announced that its lectures will be online until summer 2021.  

Analysis of a YouthSight poll of 516 students who have applied to a UK university this year by London Economics* found that an additional 17% of prospective students will not enrol in higher education in September 2020 if universities are not operating as usual. Figures from UCAS show that in normal years between 5-6% of students opt to defer their place^ - around 30,000 students. The current analysis suggests there would be around 120,000 deferrals.

The survey also asked students how likely they were to switch universities by going through the clearing process. Of those surveyed, on average, there was a 25% chance that they would consider switching institution. UCU warned that a summer of unnecessary competition for students, at a time when universities already faced record deferrals and financial problems, could lead to some institutions becoming financially unstable.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: '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.

'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. Without decisive action now, deferral rates will continue to rise and damaging competition to try and secure students still intending to study will intensify.

'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 Conlon, Partner at London Economics said: 'The analysis illustrates that there continues to be a huge amount of uncertainty amongst prospective students in respect of the potential higher education offer in September.

'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.'

According to Ucas, a record 73,320 students used clearing last year to secure a university place. If 25% of students decided to consider using clearing this year to consider their options that would be almost double the number in 2019.

Deferral rates


Total students


% deferred





















Figures from Ucas 

* Questions about likelihood of attending university:

'Suppose that the university you have applied to or received an offer from will be operating as usual in autumn 2020. In other words, all classes are in person, and there are few if any social distancing restrictions or limits on university activities or student life, to what extent would you still intend to go to university in autumn 2020?'

86.7% likelihood of attendance under business as usual.

'Suppose that the university you have applied to or received an offer from announces that it will not be operating as usual in the first term in autumn 2020, with many classes delivered online, most university activities severely restricted, and many Covid-19 social distancing restrictions still in place, to what extent would you still intend to go to university in autumn 2020?'

72.0% likelihood of attendance under covid-19.

Comparing the scenario where higher education institutions are not operating as normal as a result of the pandemic with the business as usual scenario, the analysis suggests that approximately (17%) of prospective UK-domiciled students will not enrol in higher education in September 2020. 86.7% likelihood under business as usual and 72.0% under Covid-19 restrictions is a 14.7 percentage point difference - which is 17% of 86.7%. 

Questions about likelihood of changing course

'Whatever the nature of provision in autumn 2020, if you have already received an offer from a university to start your studies in autumn 2020, to what extent would you consider changing university during the clearing process in August (e.g. because of another university making an offer or a change in your personal preferences)?'

The likelihood that prospective UK-domiciled students would consider switching provider during clearing is 25%. London Economics assign a probability of accepting an offer from another university based on the responses from prospective students (ranging from 0% to 100%) and then calculate a weighted average across all responses, with the average likelihood estimate at around 25%.