Higher education admission procedures risk being disrupted by COVID-19 crisis

27 April 2020

The COVID 19 outbreak is a public health crisis quite different than anything Europe has faced for many years. As education personnel and their trade unions grapple with the outbreak, we are supporting and informing member organisations in any way we can.

The COVID-19 crisis has led to the temporary closure of schools and higher education institutions across Europe. Some countries already announced the cancellation of their secondary school examinations. These disruptions are creating major challenges for higher education admission procedures, as recently pointed out by a Eurydice article.

A Eurydice report from 2017 paints a diverse and complex picture of higher education admission systems across Europe, which need to balance equity (providing an equal access for certain social groups), efficiency (matching the skills and interests of learners to the education programmes in order to avoid drop-outs) and efficacy (outcomes like employment and employability). The report also shows that in most cases, students’ admissions are not one-time events but long-term processes, with some countries already defining in early secondary education if a student may or may not be permitted to enter higher education.

These complex processes risk being severely disturbed by the COVID-19 pandemic and its consequences for schools and higher education institutions. While countries like Austria are planning to organise examinations as usual, most countries will postpone them, which might result in an altered higher education schedule.

In many countries, end of secondary school examinations play an important role in the higher education admission process, so they may need to fall back on alternative assessment procedures. While Croatia, Denmark and Estonia anticipate focusing on main subjects only, the Czech R., Finland and France will put a higher emphasis on formative assessment. Several countries like Ireland, the Netherlands, Sweden, Slovakia and the United Kingdom already have decided to cancel their end of secondary school examinations. To decide on higher education admission of students, the United Kingdom plans to combine information on the past performance of schools with grades teachers predict for their students based on previous work. A report by the University and College Union (UCU) warns of another massive issue UK universities will be facing due to COVID-19: the crisis and its economic consequences will result in a large drop of UK and international students 2020-2021, with a resulting £2.5bn funding hole and 30 000 university jobs being at risk without government intervention.

Some countries may also need to adapt their student fee and support system. A 2018 Eurydice report highlights that Latvia, Lithuania Hungary, Romania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Macedonia differentiate fees payed by higher-education entrants based on their performance in upper secondary education and/or their results in admission tests.

While alternative examination processes raise many questions regarding their fairness, Eurydice reminds us that examinations are never entirely unbiased, being influenced by many factors. The report concludes that “the best way to ensure widespread admission to higher education is to provide high quality education to everyone from early childhood to the end of secondary education.”

Of course, this situation will also have a major impact on the personnel in higher education, who are eager to help find solutions that are practical and fair. In a Statement on tackling the COVID-19 crisis, ETUCE calls on authorities and employers to consult and involve education personnel at all times in order to protect their rights, their health and wellbeing. This will enable them to continue their work in the best possible conditions and support them in shaping the reconstruction of more equitable, fair and sustainable societies after this crisis.