British universities face a potential £760m blow to their funding after about one in five students said they would not enrol in the next academic year if classes were delivered online and other activities curtailed.
A survey of students applying for undergraduate places found that more than 20% said they were willing to delay starting their courses if universities were not operating as normal due to the coronavirus pandemic, which would mean there would be 120,000 fewer students when the academic year begins in autumn.
The results, released by the University and College Union (UCU), come as universities are wrestling with how to reopen campuses for students while protecting them from Covid-19.
A number of universities including Cambridge have said they will conduct all lectures online throughout the 2020-21 academic year, offering “blended learning” that mixes online teaching with tutorials and in-person seminars where possible.
Based on the survey data, the consultancy London Economics estimated that about 17% of prospective UK students would not enrol in September if coronavirus restrictions remained, costing the sector £763m in lost tuition fees and teaching grants.
Gavan Conlon of 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. There are a lot of jobs at risk, both in universities and in the wider local and regional economies where universities are based.”
Universities receive about 530,000 applications each year, of which about 30,000, or 6%, choose to defer their starts. But the poll of 516 applicants conducted by YouthSight suggests twice as many could defer this year even if campuses are operating as normal.
The survey also found that one in four applicants wanted to change their applications and switch institutions through the clearing process in August, which UCU said could lead to a “summer of chaos” as institutions compete to attract students.
Jo Grady, the UCU general secretary, said she hoped the “shocking” results would persuade vice-chancellors to join the union in lobbying the government for more support.
“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,” Grady said.
The survey asked applicants: “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?” Seventy-two per cent of respondents said they were likely to attend.
If universities were “operating as usual with all classes in person and “few if any” social distancing restrictions, 13% said they would still defer starting.
Universities also face potential losses running into billions of pounds if international students stay away. A survey by Quacquarelli Symonds found that 49% of international students from China say they do not want to enrol this year if their courses begin online.