Coronavirus: higher education, further education, and apprenticeships

Published 24/04/2020   |   Last Updated 04/12/2020   |   Reading Time minutes

This article was last updated on 30 April 2020

Universities, further education colleges and work-based learning providers in Wales are now all delivering teaching via distance learning. As independent institutions, private companies and third-sector bodies, decisions about teaching fall to the providers themselves.

The Coronavirus Act 2020 gives Welsh Ministers the powers to partially or fully close or keep open an educational institution, but these powers have not been used at the time of writing.

All providers have qualified access to the UK Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme for some of their workforces.

University exams

Universities make decisions about how to deliver and assess their own degree awards. They have considerable discretion to develop their own assessment strategies and arrangements.

However, the Quality Assurance Agency, which quality assures UK and Welsh university provision, expects assessments to be fair, and for academic standards to be maintained. It has issued thematic guidance to universities.

Vocational qualifications – Ofqual proposals

The cancellation of examinations for GCSE, A-Level and Welsh Bacc qualifications will affect learners in a further education setting. The arrangements in place to provide a calculated grade for Welsh further education learners taking these qualifications are the same as for pupils in a school or sixth form setting.

However, all apprentices, and significant numbers of further education learners will be undertaking vocational qualifications. The position for these learners was less clear at the time of originally publishing this blog but has now moved on with Qualifications Wales setting out further information on 24 April 2020.

Whereas most general education qualifications in Wales are awarded by the WJEC, vocational qualifications are awarded by over 100 awarding bodies working across the UK. Qualifications Wales explains that to “ensure consistency for learners taking these qualifications, the same approach will be taken for learners in Wales as that set out by Ofqual, the regulator in England.”

Ofqual has now launched a two week consultation on exceptional arrangements for assessment and grading in 2020 open until 08 May 2020. In line with intention stated above, Qualifications Wales will not be consulting separately, and urges interested parties to respond to the Ofqual consultation. A key aim of the Ofqual proposals, explains Qualifications Wales:

[is] to ensure learners can receive grades this summer so they can progress to their next stage, while providing assurance that the grades will be valued and that the approach is fair

Ofqual proposes that awarding bodies adopt a “calculate, adapt or delay” approach after placing all vocational qualifications into three categories:

  • Category 1 - Qualification used for progression to further or higher education (treated very much like GCSEs/A Levels)
  • Category 2 - Qualifications serving a mixed purpose
  • Category 3 - Qualifications awarding occupational competence.

Qualifications Wales explains that “awarding bodies will decide which of the following principles should be applied in each case:

  • A calculated grade, if possible (Calculate)
  • Where calculation is not possible, consideration should be given to adapting existing assessments (Adapt)
  • Reschedule assessments where it is clear that neither calculation nor adaptation are possible (Delay)”.

Qualifications Wales expects that most vocational learners who expected to finish their assessments between May and July will receive a calculated result “based on a range of evidence held by the school, college or training provider”. But where qualifications serve as a license to practice, or directly signal competence (Category 3 above), learners may have “no option but to wait until normal assessments can happen again”.

University admissions

A-Level calculated grades will be released at the usual times in England and Wales. As noted above, it is possible vocational qualifications that are used by universities to decide admissions, such as BTECs, will also be calculated to similar timelines. This means that the university admissions system run by UCAS on behalf of UK universities is continuing broadly along its normal deadlines for a September academic year start.

Some universities in England began to issue unconditional offers to applicants shortly after the beginning of the coronavirus emergency. Ministers across the UK, including the Welsh Minister for Education Kirsty Williams AM, wrote to providers within their nations asking them to not issue any unconditional offers until 1 May 2020.

The Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW) made the following statement on admissions:

We and the other UK funders and regulators are in discussion with UCAS to see whether any other changes can be made to this year’s recruitment cycle to stabilise the system. This could include extending the ‘decline by default’ deadline (where prospective students are assumed to have declined if they do not confirm their offer before the UCAS acceptance deadline); and increasing available information, advice and guidance to applicants to take account of the fact that school leavers now have reduced access to careers support.

Student and college learner financial support

University student support, along with further education and apprenticeship support, is devolved. Wales has distinct student and learner and support packages to other UK nations.

The Welsh Government and the Student Loans Company (which processes tuition fee and maintenance payments on behalf of the Welsh Government under the Student Finance Wales brand) have stated that maintenance payments for the summer term will continue as normal, and should be paid on time.

Under the normal rules, students who live with their parents receive a lower level of maintenance. The Welsh Government explained that students who have moved back to their parents’ because of the coronavirus emergency will not see their maintenance levels reduced this term. The Minister for Education told the Assembly’s Children Young People and Education (CYPE) Committee on 28 April that:

I want to reassure students that there will be no change to their student support payments just because they have left their universities and have decided to go home. There should be no change.

It is unclear if reduced maintenance levels will be payable next academic year for any students who may not be able to move into, or back into, their student accommodation because of coronavirus.

The Welsh Government has also set out that Education Maintenance Allowance and Welsh Government Learning Grants to further education learners will continue as normal.

Apprentices under 18 are not normally able to access statutory sick pay (SSP) or Universal Credit, so the Welsh Government has announced a scheme to pay them £50 a week during any coronavirus sickness or self-isolation.

Welsh Government funding for post-16 education

Welsh universities can expect tuition fee income to be paid as normal by the Student Loans Company for the remainder of the 2019/20 academic year. Work-based learning contractors, who include further education colleges, have been in discussions with the Welsh Government on developing a new funding methodology for the remainder of the academic year. The National Training Federation for Wales (NTfW) explains that:

The Welsh Government has agreed a series of measures to enable work-based learning providers to continue to work with trainees, participants, apprentices and employers throughout the period of the Coronavirus pandemic. This includes the payment of average funding values, which although results in a reduction to the expected funding to the sector, it does ensure the financial stability of the provider network, in order that they can continue to deliver innovative teaching, learning and assessment.

The Welsh Government is currently reprioritising funding across its budget lines to support the coronavirus emergency. Kirsty Williams’s letter to HEFCW explains that this exercise is expected to be completed by the end of April, which means there may be changes to the original 2020-21 Final Budget allocations for post-16 education.

In the same letter the Minister sets out a provisional allocation to HEFCW for 2020-21 of £171.9 million as opposed to £178.2 million in the 2020-21 Final Budget. The Minister warns that the eventual grant may be less.

Universities UK’s “achieving stability” proposal

Universities UK (UUK) is the representative body for the higher education sector in the UK. Universities Wales is a national council of UUK and represents the interests of higher education providers in Wales.

These interests can sometimes differ from the wider UK higher education sector as policy in this area is devolved to Wales. But there remain some significant areas of cross-border shared interest, with both the Welsh and English sectors sharing the same student recruitment pool, research funding mechanisms and general characteristics.

UUK wrote to UK Government Ministers (with Universities Wales Chair Professor Julie Lydon writing to the Welsh Minister for Education) calling for substantial interventions in the higher sector to stabilise it during a period where income is expected to fall significantly. Its proposals would need to be approved by both UK Government for universities in England, and the Welsh Government for universities in Wales.

In some areas the proposals rely on the Welsh Government passing on the Barnett consequentials from any interventions in England entirely and directly to the sector in Wales.

The paper explains that:

Ministers across all four nations must work together to deliver this package of proposals that meets the needs of universities across all four nations. Implementation of the package of measures should reflect the different funding models across the devolved nations. Whilst devolved administrations must firstly protect investment in universities, the scale of the challenges goes beyond what can be afforded from devolved budgets. The necessary investment must reach universities in the devolved nations. A co-ordinated plan is needed to maintain capacity and enable a swift recovery for universities in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.

The UUK paper sets out that the sector in the UK faces several significant risks including an immediate financial impact in 2019/20 academic year, but also the risk of a much larger drop in income for the 2020/21 academic year due to:

  • a significant fall in international students;
  • a rise in deferrals from undergraduate students; and
  • loss of income from commercial activity and research projects.

A report from the London Economics consultancy drafted on behalf of the University and College Union (UCU) warns that universities in Wales could suffer losses in 2020/21 of £98 million and shed 1,200 staff. Significantly, the paper also warns that half of Wales’ eight universities could have a negative cashflow “after the pandemic”.

The UUK calls for a 100% increase in core-research funding to universities (which would cost Welsh Government an additional £71 million).

Significantly, it also calls for a voluntary cap on student recruitment by each university to no more than its overall forecast 2020/21 recruitment plan plus a 5% margin. This proposal is borne from the risk of universities engaging in open competition to considerably increase their own recruitment of undergraduates to offset the risk of falls in international student numbers. Such increased competition could see some institutions fall into financial difficulty from a loss of tuition fee income.

In Wales, the sector received 54% of its income from tuition fees in 2018/19. However, institutions in Wales have different levels of exposure to tuition fees, with the most exposed receiving 76% of their income from tuition fees in 2018/19 and the least, 46%.

The Minister told the CYPE Committee on 29 April 2020 that:

We are working closely with Universities Wales and have a lot of sympathy for the proposals that have come forward from Universities UK, which Wales's universities have been a part of forming. […] clearly we will need to have an ongoing discussion about how we respond to the immediacy of the issues facing HE, how we can get stability for the next academic year, and how we then can support the sector through what is a really challenging time for them. We will do that in a Welsh context and we will continue to do that also in a UK context, because you will have seen the scale of some of the figures that have been talked about in terms of the impact on the HE sector at this time. Clearly, a four-nation approach to that will be crucial

Further Information for learners and students

Article by Phil Boshier, Senedd Research, National Assembly for Wales

We’ve published a range of material on the coronavirus pandemic, including a post setting out the help and guidance available for people in Wales and a timeline of Welsh and UK governments’ response.

You can see all our coronavirus-related publications by clicking here. All are updated regularly.