Report Overview

The COVID-19 pandemic poses significant challenges for higher education across the UK. Young people applying to university this year are now facing months of uncertainty, as they try to make decisions on their future amid exam cancellations and a new system to determine grades, all without face-to-face support from their school. And for students currently attending university, while delivery has shifted online, not all students will be equally able to access that content. Many young people are also at the same time facing financial insecurity due to the pandemic, impacting on their ability to afford to study. This briefing, the second in our series on COVID-19 and social mobility, will look at how schools, universities and government can lessen the effect of the crisis on these students, to help to ensure all young people, no matter their background, continue to have the opportunity to both access and succeed at university.

1 in 5

The proportion of applicants who've changed their minds or haven't decided about university this year


Private schools are almost twice as likely to still be teaching A Level content as state schools

1 in 3

The proportion of undergraduate students whose jobs have been affected due to the crisis

Key Findings

University Applicants

  • A fifth of university applicants (19%) have changed their mind about their university attendance this autumn or have yet to decide. Of those who have changed plans since the Covid-19 crisis, some are now planning to take gap years while others have changed their preferred university. Working class students were more likely to have changed their mind.
  • Almost half (48%) of applicants feel the Covid-19 health crisis will have a negative impact on their chances of getting into their first-choice university. 31% felt it would have no impact. Working class applicants were more likely to be worried about the negative impact (51%, compared to 43% from middle class homes).
  • Many students do not feel they are receiving enough support from their school for their university applications (35% are not satisfied overall).
  • 43% of university applicants studying for A levels feel that the new assessment procedure will have a negative impact on their grades. While most feel that the impact will be small, 72% felt that the new grading system is less fair than in a normal year.
  • Over half (52%) say they would be likely to take a replacement exam in the autumn if they don’t get the grades they hope for. 60% of those attending private schools would be likely to resit, compared to 52% at state schools.
  • Applicants from working class backgrounds were twice as likely to have insufficient access to internet access, devices for learning or a suitable place to study, compared to those from middle class homes.
  • Private schools are almost twice as likely to be still teaching A Level content as state schools (57% v 30% receiving regular work and feedback from teachers).

University students

  • 74% of students report that exams and assessments are now being carried out online, with 27% reporting that some marks are being based on previous assessment.
  • 6% of students report that they do not have sufficient access to computers or devices required for learning and assessment. 5% report that they do not have sufficient internet access, and 23% report lack of access to suitable study space.
  • 30% of students report that they are less able to afford study because of the pandemic, with those outside Russell Group institutions more likely to have such financial concerns.
  • 34% of students report that they have lost a job, had reduced hours, or not been paid for work completed. While 22% report that their parents have been less able to support them financially. Students at post-1992 universities were more likely to have suffered work-related losses.
  • 30% of students are unsatisfied with the financial support offered by their university during the crisis, with 36% satisfied. However many students are unsure, indicating a lack of awareness of what support their university is offering.

Assessment and Admissions

1. Exam regulators, including Ofqual, should monitor attainment gaps in the new grading system and consider statistical adjustments if necessary. If substantial socio-economic attainment gaps open up during the adjustment process, Ofqual should be prepared to make further adjustments.

2. Applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds who have narrowly missed their offer grades should be given additional consideration. Contextualising admissions in this year’s application cycle is more important than ever, given the recent upheaval in schools and the cancellation of exams.

3. In the future, university admissions should move to Post-Qualification Applications. The unreliability of predicted grades has been acknowledged in Ofqual’s role in adjusting grades. We should take this opportunity to remove predicted grades from the system entirely by moving to a post-qualification system going forward.

4. If student number caps are to be introduced, they should be carefully calibrated to minimise their impact on disadvantaged students and the widening participation agenda. Any temporary re-introduction of number caps should not undermine the efforts of selective universities in particular to meet their Access and Participation Plan targets.

5. Approaching the final UCAS deadline, and around A Level results day, it is vital that schools are able to offer additional support and advice to students making decisions around their future. This is particularly the case for those who are the first in their family to attend university, or those from disadvantaged backgrounds more generally. This could be done remotely if necessary.


1. Additional financial support for students is vital both to ensure current students can continue their courses, and access is not harmed for current university applicants from families suffering from financial stresses due to coronavirus. Universities should bolster hardship funds where possible, including increasing awareness of such funds. But government should also consider stepping in to offer emergency maintenance grants.

2. Universities should ensure that students, particularly those in final year, are not disadvantaged due to changes in assessment required by the lockdown. This is particularly the case for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, who are less likely to have access to the equipment, internet access and workspaces required to complete assessments online. Universities should offer all reasonable accommodations to such students.