Skip to content
  • Blog
  • 10th Jul 2020

Mitigating the impact of COVID-19 on higher education

Students about to start or return to higher education in September face a radically different experience to what they originally anticipated – with online classes and reduced social contact. As social distancing measures become the ‘new normal’ under COVID-19, higher education providers must explore new ways to support access, success and retention of their students if they are to flourish in this novel environment. This is all the more important for disadvantaged and underrepresented students who – even in normal times – face added barriers to higher education, such as financial challenges and reduced feelings of belonging. 

The effects of the coronavirus crisis on higher education are already being felt. For instance:

  • 19% of higher education applicants say they may defer a year due to COVID-19 related course changes.   
  • 79% of current students report study issues related to COVID-19 and 60% report anxieties or mental health issues related to COVID-19.
  • 77% of students are worried about money due to COVID-19 and 6% don’t have the technology required to study from home.

An increase in deferrals or drop-out rates could have an unusually negative impact on young people’s life outcomes right now, given the current difficulty of finding work. As a result, this period could lead to long-term problems – including lower lifelong earnings (due to potentially worse degree outcomes or dropping out altogether) and higher rates of lifelong employment instability – since a period of unemployment early in a young person’s career is known to cause long-term scarring.

We believe that the below low-cost behavioural interventions could mitigate the long-term impacts of COVID-19 on students:

Increasing access

1. Timely communication to underrepresented applicants: Extra emails or letters to underrepresented applicants (who tend to be less sure about attending and may worry that university is ‘not for them’) ahead of and on A level results day could make them feel valued and remind them of the benefits of HE. BIT’s research suggests that these communications should: 1) highlight the immediate social benefits of university even under lockdown (rather than focusing only on the long-term financial benefits, which can actually deter less advantaged applicants); 2) include quotes from relatable students.

2. Messages from relatable students to disadvantaged pupils in year 12: BIT has found that letters of encouragement to pupils from low-participation areas, written by a current undergraduate from a similar background, can boost applications and acceptances to university by about a third (from 8.5% to 11.3%).  This low-cost intervention could counteract negative pressures on widening participation. As an alternative, universities could send messages via online careers advice platforms. 

Increasing retention and success

3. Belonging exercises during inductions: Students arriving in September will have missed out on the final months of learning at school and may be less prepared academically when they start university. They may also struggle to make friends in a new, remote context.  Therefore it is particularly critical for student retention and success to support belonging at the beginning of the academic year.

In the US, belonging exercises designed by psychologists have boosted retention and attainment in higher education, especially for underrepresented students. These short exercises show that worries about ‘fitting in’ are a normal part of the transition to higher education and tend to pass with time. Some exercises even increased retention by 41%, and reduced attainment gaps between black and white students by up to 52%

4. Support for returning students: Surveys suggest that many current students will also experience higher levels of anxiety than usual, which could increase dropout rates – especially for those students already struggling. We recommend extra communications to acknowledge these worries and provide reassurance. In the past, BIT demonstrated that messages which normalise anxieties can increase engagement with university support services. For example, in a trial with King’s College London the message “lots of King’s 1st years find adapting to university study takes timedoubled uptake of study modules.

5. Extra interventions to boost academic performance: Many universities are planning to hold lectures and seminars remotely in 2020/21 and should apply evidence-based interventions to improve student engagement with virtual resources. For example, prompting students to plan how to achieve their study goals can boost online course completion by 29%, while virtual peer collaboration also boosts online learning success.

Without careful planning by higher education providers, there is a very real risk that COVID-19 will negatively impact students’ access, retention and success in higher education – damaging their life chances. Behavioural science offers practical, evidence-based solutions that could make a critical difference to students’ lives.  

BIT is keen to support higher education providers in designing the online student experience. If you’re a higher education provider, please get in touch to see how we could help by contacting


Read more of our COVID-19 work