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COVID-19 (Coronavirus) – support and guidance

Admissions and Transitions: Supporting the Sector

Date: August 20 - 2020

UK higher education has shown remarkable resilience and agility over the last five months as the leaders, staff and students of our universities and colleges have adapted to the unique challenges presented by COVID-19. Institutions have developed and adapted their provision effectively in the wake of the pandemic, and this work has left the sector well-equipped to meet the unique requirements of the coming year.

With new students entering higher education having missed months of formal education, it will be particularly important to focus on effective support for their admission and transitions - helping students to get in, and get on, in higher education. QAA recently produced guidance on the impact of COVID-19 in these areas, and providers may find this helpful.

Recent decisions by governments across the UK to allow the use of centre-assessed grades for A levels, teacher assessed grades for Highers, and similar decisions for other qualifications have helped give greater certainty to thousands of students. However, universities and colleges will have to continue to adapt as incoming student cohorts may be different in size or demographic than previously anticipated. These new circumstances can potentially compound existing challenges including the academic, pedagogical and wellbeing requirements arising from the new intake of students arriving into an environment they know will be different from the experience of any previous generation. This applies to a certain extent to returning students too.

If not managed well, there are implications for the maintenance of academic standards and the quality of experience for students. The circumstances of institutions will vary but there are common themes we know they are considering:

  • understanding - and accommodating - difficulties that students might be facing as a consequence of a lengthy forced break from formal learning
  • working with the students’ union or equivalent to prepare for induction
  • a change in volume or nature of potential complaints and student representations relating to the quality of higher education provided
  • ensuring any changes to programme delivery adapt to the needs and logistics arising from different cohorts of students
  • paying close attention to the sufficiency of spaces for learning (particularly where specialised environments such as laboratories, studios, theatres are required) and the availability of clinical and non-clinical placements.

QAA’s role is to safeguard academic standards and ensure the quality and global reputation of UK higher education, and we are working with our member institutions and sector agencies across the UK to support them in delivering the best student experience. Sector-acknowledged principles adopted by all UK higher education institutions already exist in the UK Quality Code for Higher Education.

In these dynamic circumstances, we would encourage institutions to consider how their internal quality processes can be used flexibly and speedily to track emerging issues so that cohorts can be effectively supported.

Supporting student transitions

Over the coming months, we will be delivering on a range of planned activities to support student transitions across the UK. We will be working with our member institutions and student bodies to offer continuous support as the sector adapts once more to complex circumstances to support their students to succeed. QAA Members will be able to access a range of existing materials, covering topics such as transitions strategies, student mental wellbeing and student digital engagement. We will also be building on this work by rolling out a programme of webinars and hosting discussion forums for members to share experiences and identify emerging and effective practice.

Evidence from our work on Scotland’s Enhancement Themes emphasises that student transitions work best when they are extended over the first year of students’ study, rather than focusing on the first weeks of arrival at a university or college. We have produced a suite of activities aimed at supporting students - and staff - to make positive transitions into university. We will also draw on, and apply lessons from, this project in our activities for the sector across the UK.

QAA stands ready to work with its members, individually and collectively, to share practice that enables institutions to help their students succeed. We will continue to talk with sector agencies, governments, funders and regulators across the UK to address shared challenges.