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Will UK universities delay the academic term to January 2021?

academic term
A pilot wears a facemask as he arrives at Terminal 5 at Heathrow airport in west London as the UK government's planned 14-day quarantine for international arrivals to limit the spread of Covid-19 starts on June 8, 2020. Source: ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP

English universities traditionally start the academic term in September. With so much uncertainty surrounding the fall term and concerns about using predicted A level results for admissions, can students expect to see the start of term shifted to January instead?

That’s one idea currently being proposed by UK Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, who wants to scrap the use of predicted A-level grades and move the start of the academic year for English universities to January. 

The Guardian reported that the Department for Education (DfE) is planning these changes to improve social mobility and help disadvantaged school-leavers, including students from black and minority ethnic (BAME) groups.

The new proposal would see applicants apply for university using their exam results, meaning they would have a clear understanding of the courses for which their final grades qualify, said the report.

A level exam results would still be published in August, but the proposal would have universities start in January and have five months to process applications. Students could also apply before obtaining their results, but offers will not be made until after results are published.

Currently, UK students use predicted grades to apply to university and receive offers before sitting for their A levels. 

This practice has long been criticised by think-tanks and policymakers as disadvantaged students are often given lower predicted grades and thus, lose out in the admissions process.

Could COVID-19 pave the way for January academic terms?

academic term

It’s not the first time that ideas to postpone the academic term to January has cropped up. Source: Glyn Kirk/AFP

Despite its critics, it has not resulted in reforms in the A level exams but COVID-19’s impact on the higher education sector has resulted in many UK universities proposing delays to the academic term.   

One survey by The Daily Telegraph found that 12 out of 24 of the UK’s Russell Group universities intend to delay the start of their course, with more expected to follow suit, said The Telegraph.

Some universities are delaying the start of their term to accommodate international students who may have had their exams delayed due to the pandemic, while undergraduate courses have been delayed by up to three weeks.

Some postgraduate courses will not start until Jan. 2021, said the report. 

Other UK universities are also adapting their academic terms to ensure no student is left out.

For instance, Queen Mary University announced that it will be delivering January starts across six of their schools, in addition to the traditional September start. The University of Liverpool has said that they will offer greater flexibility on start dates for their postgraduate taught programmes. 

The University of Glasgow is also offering many of its postgraduate taught students the opportunity to begin their studies in Jan. 2021.

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