With the news dominated by statues, Primark’s reopening and the introduction of face-mask rules, something rather big has slipped under the radar. On June 18 – this Thursday – teenagers around the country will have to decide whether they want to accept their university places through the UCAS admissions service.

Most years, this is a fairly straightforward process. But the Coronavirus crisis has made undergraduate courses much less appealing, as a result of measures designed to slow the virus.

Some of these changes include “virtual freshers’ weeks”, “bubbles” of students who will live and study with the people on the same course and online lectures for the 2020-21. There are even reports of UK language students preparing for a “virtual year abroad”. At the same time, students aren’t entitled to refunds or compensation for their (typically £9,000 per year) degrees being severely disrupted.

Foreign students have made no secret of their unhappiness with the new measures. In a QS report, 53 per cent (out of 30,000) said they would defer going to university for a year – up from 46 per cent in April and 40 per cent said they would not be interested at all if courses move online. Seventy-seven per cent wanted a discount.

All of this will desperately concern institutions – not least because of the British reliance (or overreliance) on foreign students. Just one third of East Asian students dropping out, for instance, means a loss of approximately £463 million. Hence why Jo Johnson, the former universities minister, has suggested doubling the post-study work visa from two to four years – as an incentive for coming to the UK.

What’s received far less attention is how many British students will accept places on Thursday – and the implications if there are mass deferrals or drop outs. While no one can know for certain what the final figures will be, the University and College Union, London Economics, has estimated that the pandemic had reduced the likelihood of attendance by approximately 17 per cent. This would mean a £150 million loss of income for institutions.

ConservativeHome understands that Department of Education data from UCAS and the Student Loans Company suggests deferrals will be similar to previous years, so there may be nothing to worry about. Perhaps young people are hopeful that the measures will only be temporary. Alternatively, they’re stuck for options as to what to do otherwise. With companies furloughing and letting go of their staff, it’s not as if there are jobs aplenty for this generation.

But it is worth mulling over what would happen if we see a big fall in numbers. On a societal level, it could escalate the tensions we’ve seen in recent weeks, particularly when combined with mass unemployment, curbs on socialising and travelling, as well as a housing crisis. 

It could further entrench inequalities in the system, with teenagers who have to pay their way through university (through furloughed jobs, such as bar work) now unable to go. Russell Group Universities, which have multiple applicants for one place, will do better than their counterparts.

The financial damage for institutions will be sizeable, with them having already called for a multi-billion pound Government bailout – which was refused. Speaking about the decision, Michelle Donelan, the universities minister, said the Government had “already seen, over the last few months, courses being delivered online and virtually to an amazing degree of quality”. 

These words encapsulate a major problem for universities; by moving online so readily, they seem to be justifying their own demise. If it is possible to get First Class Honours over Zoom at one’s parents’ house, after all, why would students spend thousands on campus accommodation, and the rest. It will mostly serve to open the market up to other competitors; anyone who can digitalise educational content in a compelling way (and the industry already has some big players).

Ultimately, it has been known for years that universities have been churning out huge numbers of “low-value degrees”, which do little to promote the life outcomes of young people, or give back to the taxpayer (who often has to pick up the bill). There has been no serious political engagement with the problem, and a real neglect of technical education – which one suspects the public has much more interest in paying for, such is the returns it can bring.

This crisis, though we wish it could have been avoided – is a big wake-up call to these institutions that business cannot continue as normal. As Neil O’Brien, our columnist put it, “universities should reform themselves. Or have reform forced on them.” If there are big drop outs on Thursday, it will – at least – be the incentive they need.