This Wednesday, January 26, will certainly be a date to remember. For some, it is a day of celebration, marking the end of Covid “Plan B” measures in England. But for others, it’s UCAS deadline day, full of apprehension.
By 18:00, Ella* – a hypothetical but somewhat representative international student – will have submitted her application. Since Year 11, her overwhelming ambition had always been to specialise in economics. However, throughout the course of the pandemic, Ella began to reflect and percolate: What do I really want to do? Is it what I want to do? Why and how much do I really want to do this? What is my Plan B?
Months on end at home inevitably led to people reassessing their post-Covid future plans. Gone are the days of straight-forward, seamless transitions to university straight after A-level. School leavers, like Ella, experienced three academic years like no other, and with recurring school closures and exam cancellations, it comes as no surprise that “anxiety” was regrettably coined Children’s Word of the Year 2021.
“Months on end at home inevitably led to people reassessing their future plans.”
UCAS statistics to date indicate a 5 per cent jump in applications, provoked not only by a demographic surge of 18-year-olds in the UK, but also by a 15.76 per cent increase in students holding voluntary or incentivised deferrals to 2022.
With a 51.75 per cent rise in October 15th deadline applicants alone, evidently school leavers, including Ella, are quite possibly enduring the most selective (or “rejective”) year on record, making the upcoming ordeal feel almost insurmountable.
Despite this, Ella, equipped with high expectations and straight 9s at GCSE, applied exclusively to higher tariff universities, after having initially rolling the dice at the October 15 deadline institutions.
Urged by UCAS Adjustment’s discontinuation this year, she aimed high, trusting that UCAS Extra and Clearing safety nets will be there, come what may. Most UK universities still offer hybrid teaching, and with international students typically paying £20,000-£60,000pa in tuition, they are increasingly conscious of the return on such investment. Zoominars served as the all-important Band-Aid needed to ensure educational continuity; however, after three years studying virtually, students long for face-to-face interactions.
The absence of in-person work experience has inherently diminished applicants’ confidence in submitting compelling personal statements. Yet, they must still show their positive response to times of crisis with initiative, innovation, and resilience, in a desperate bid to stand out. And so, Ella, like many others, drew upon the skills gained from independently-sought online volunteering, MOOCs, webinars, podcasts, scholarly articles, essay competitions… just to keep in contention. Then, only a few days after submission came a surprise admissions test for the following week.
“Lack of in-person work experience has reduced applicants’ confidence in their personal statements.”
Evidently, little trust is placed in either predicted or achieved grades to date and, in some cases, the personal statement, even after months of agonising polishing. Yet again, applicants like Ella have had to quickly troubleshoot options to counteract a perceived lack of experience. The outcome? An upward trend in applications to alternative opportunities, including sandwich years, years abroad, and, refreshingly, degree apprenticeships. Students are now prioritising holistic development, inspired by the notion of graduating with significant work or international exchange in the bank, so as to optimise future employability post-graduation.
In a similar vein, Ella now questions whether the UK is indeed the best place for her. Realising her desire for work-study opportunities, Canada’s cooperative degrees rapidly soared to the top of her application preference list. Other on-the-fence peers are preparing last-minute applications to destinations where they can study more flexibly (USA), or perhaps even undertake dual/double degrees (Hong Kong, Singapore).
“Students are quite possibly enduring the most selective (or rejective) year on record””
Some remain undecided, and understandably so. Despite the overwhelming pessimism of the past few years, one beacon of hope still shines through: the increased acceptance of gap years. Today, more students (and, crucially, families) are amenable to applying post-qualification; for some, it may be to reapply, or prioritise mental wellbeing in the run-up to their first ever formal examinations. For others, like Ella, it could offer the freedom to interrogate alternatives.
January 26th, 2022, marks the end of an application cycle akin to running a gauntlet. With evermore unforeseen obstacles to overcome, the assumed norm of going straight to university has been challenged. Students are no longer afraid to go against the grain, and instead readily embrace the value of choice, both in programme and destination. Not only are students yearning to experience that long lost wanderlust, but have now started to scrutinise whether Plan B is no longer a fall-back option, but, rather, their “best fit”. It may not be what they initially wanted or expected pre-pandemic, but perhaps, Plan B may have just become Plan A.
*Ella exists hypothetically but is based upon first-hand experiences and interactions with applicants this year.