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University choices in a COVID era

As University Counsellors, we were anticipating continued disruption from the pandemic and the inevitable shifts to higher education last year and ‘Post-BISP Planning’ is the phrase that was coined.


Sunday 15 August 2021, 11:00AM

Changes in the traditional higher education pathways were already starting to emerge before COVID-19; students and families had started to think more practically and more creatively about options after secondary school. “University Counselling” just didn’t cover all the possibilities we were talking about with students. 

Nevertheless, there was little question that fledgling trends emphasising cost-efficiency, practical experience, citizenship pathways, military service, and flexible degrees were going to grow as the global economic situation gave families and students permission to think differently. Last year saw a quarter of the Class of 2020 take a gap year and the Class of 2021 is on the same track.

Pre-COVID-19, there was more certainty about plans after graduation. University was the norm for 94% of the graduating class at BISP. It was easier to pick a country or university to attend because incomes were generally stable, and travel was less complicated. 

Looking back on this year, Post-BISP Planning has meant more emphasis on research: research of total costs, value for money, visa restrictions and vaccination roll-outs. Students and families simply had to take more time to research application options. Many students delayed final decisions as university or gap year plans required thorough vetting of COVID-19 considerations.


How students made choices was one change; how universities found and recruited students was another. For the past five years, universities from around the world would come to the BISP University Fair, an event that hosted over 100 universities. Students had exposure to universities they had not heard of without leaving campus. Now, there is only one way to research – online. And how much time does a student really want to spend watching university webinars after a day of online learning? 

The responsibility of filtering and disseminating information is too vast for students to do alone and must be a deliberate team effort with counsellors, students and families working together. The student-led conferences in March and April initiated the shift to emphasise the need for teamwork and to support students to take ownership of their process. The recent addition of Unifrog, a global platform providing support for post-high school planning, will also facilitate comparing and contrasting university options.

This year the University Counsellors have been kept busy as university requirements worldwide have changed dramatically. SAT testing has become optional, in some cases, eliminated, the extension of the UCAS deadline was unprecedented, scholarship applications and home fee status paperwork are the new normal. 

Advising BISP students has become more technical. Now, many variables have to be considered for each student. Globally, the highly selective universities have experienced a 20 to 50% increase in applications, earning them the nickname the highly “rejectives” because of their high rates of applications and meagre rates of acceptance. 

Students applying to selective universities endured uncertainty caused by the increase in competition. Wisely, many students made adjustments, carefully focusing on practical factors or opportunities they felt matched their interests and goals. Other students took advantage of the new flexibility to change plans as ideas about the future emerged and solidified throughout their final year at BISP. 

These lessons have been passed on to the students in the Class of 2022 who have clearly discovered the value of reflecting on what matters most to them as individuals and to not squander this moment to be deliberate and thoughtful about their choices. 

Collaboration and efforts to support students to take ownership of their process is certainly the way forward and Unifrog will most certainly facilitate easier comparison of university options. The University Counsellors are now looking forward to completing the BISP Class of 2021’s school journey and to seeing their futures transpire. 

By Jacqui Brelsford
and Casey Nolen Jackson

Jacqui Brelsford and Casey Nolen Jackson are University Counsellors at British International School ‒ Phuket (BISP)

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