Figures show a rise in the number of students planning to start university this autumn

As UCAS figures show a rise in the number of students holding firm offers this year and fewer applicants opting to defer, optometry courses are preparing to host their new intakes


Data from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) has revealed that the number of students planning to start university this autumn has risen, with fewer applicants opting to defer their placements than at this time last year.

Comments from a number of optometry schools across the country have also appeared to reflect the enthusiasm of the 2020 cohort to begin their studies this academic year, despite some of the challenges or concerns brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Department leads for optometry courses across a number of universities have shared that they expect to receive a full cohort of students come September. The University of Huddersfield in particular has increased the number of available places as it moves into the second year of the course.

The deadline for students to decide whether to defer a place at university passed on 18 June, amongst reports that more students were considering deferring.

A survey of students applying for undergraduate places, released by the University and College Union, revealed that more than 20% (or one in five) said they were willing to delay starting their courses if universities were not operating as normal due to the pandemic. Estimates suggested this could have meant 120,000 fewer students in the autumn term.

With the deferral deadline now passed, however, UCAS figures have shown that there are more applicants holding firm offers to start a course in autumn than at the equivalent point last year. The figures showed more undergraduate applicants had accepted an offer to immediately begin studying at university or college compared to last year, and fewer applicants had chosen to accept an offer with a deferred start date, meaning fewer students are opting to take a year out.

Clare Marchant, UCAS chief executive, explained that the service was publishing the statistics for the first time in order to provide “the clearest possible picture” of students’ acceptance behaviour at this stage of the application process.

“Today’s numbers will also be welcome news for universities and colleges, and show that their announcements on the blend of online and face-to-face learning most are planning to deliver have been building confidence ahead of the start of term,” Ms Marchant added.

Responding to the results, Alistair Jarvis, the chief executive of Universities UK, which represents over 100 universities across the country, called it “very positive” to see the rise in the number of students planning to start their courses in autumn, along with the drop in deferrals.

"University remains an excellent choice for students. Despite the disruption caused by COVID-19, students can expect a high-quality experience this autumn with most universities planning to deliver teaching, student support and social activities in-person," he added.

In data shared with OT, UCAS found that as of mid-June, 3190 applicants chose to “undefer” compared to 2680 last year, meaning more students have changed their minds and now want to start their course in September, compared to the equivalent point last year.

OT reached out to a number of universities offering optometry courses to gauge student application behaviours at this stage in the process.

Sharing figures for student applications this year, the University of Hertfordshire optometry course confirmed no student applicants for the 2020 course had chosen to defer their place.

The degree accepts 50 students a year, capped by the GOC, and explained it has recorded a similar level of interest to previous years, with approximately 15 applicants per available place.

Similarly, Anglia Ruskin University anticipates being able to accommodate a full cohort of 60 students onto the optometry course this year, in line with its GOC cap.
This year marked the first year of Huddersfield University’s new optometry course. As a new provider, the course began in September last year with 30 places, but has now been approved to expand the number of places and expects to recruit 68 students for September 2020.

“Optometry is a popular choice for students wishing to come to the University of Huddersfield,” commented the head of department for optometry and vision sciences, Professor John Siderov. “For 2020 entry we have received over 350 applications.”

“To me this is not surprising given the investment that the university has made to develop optometry in terms of equipment and physical space, staff recruitment and the excellent reputation the university has within the community it serves, locally, nationally and internationally,” he added.

Operating a new course in a year struck by a pandemic has had its challenges, Mr Siderov admits, but the department appears positive and all of the students have also successfully progressed into the second year.

“The challenges faced during COVID-19 are undeniable, but with the support of our university systems and working together as a department team, we were able to complete the last elements of teaching and assessment with relatively few issues,” Mr Siderov commented.

“We look to return to teaching in September and offer students a comprehensive and exciting programme of study, including face-to-face teaching of important clinical skills. New approaches to blended learning will be incorporated into the curriculum to ensure that we operate a high quality course whilst ensuring the safety of our students, staff and the public,” he added.

Cardiff University has seen a 3% increase in home applications for the optometry course compared to last year, and 25% increase for the Optometry with Preliminary Year BSc.

“As it stands, we have not yet seen any effects of COVID-19 on our student numbers at undergraduate level, and over a three-year comparison, we are seeing no change in deferral behaviour,” a spokesperson for Cardiff University said.

Across both of its optometry programmes, the university expects around 110 enrolled students in total, and confirmed it is on track to meet this number this year.
The University of the Highlands and Islands will be offering an optometry programme for the first time from this September.

The course will be able to accept 40 students into the programme this year, and is still welcoming applications for many courses starting in September, including the optometry degree.

Asked to comment on how the department plans to deliver the new course in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, head of optometry, Alison Macpherson, explained: “Our new BSc (Hons) optometry degree has been designed as a blended programme using a mix of face-to-face and online delivery. This means we are able to adapt the programme where required to take into account any restrictions which may be in place when we start in September.”

“Our priority is to provide a safe learning environment for all of our staff and students,” Ms Macpherson added. “We have the existing expertise, knowledge and practical skills to enhance the delivery of all courses across further and higher education, while still adhering and adapting to changing government guidelines.”

The interest in health professions has been rising over the years and this year has seen “unprecedented demand” for places in nursing, midwifery and allied health professional courses in England, including ophthalmics. To accommodate the additional demand, the Health Secretary recently announced an additional 5000 ring-fenced places for courses in these fields, along with an extension in the time period for universities to bid for the places.

UCAS figures for the numbers of students accepted onto ophthalmics courses in recent years highlights an increase, with 1230 people accepted onto ophthalmics courses in 2019, compared to 1160 in 2018.

With A Level results day approaching in August, time will tell how many students will be setting off on their own journeys into the optical profession.

Are you hoping to join an optometry course in September? We would love to hear from you. Get in touch to share your experiences of finishing college and preparing for university in lockdown… [email protected]