16 December 2020
A look back at 2020 in higher education

What went down in a year like no other for the global higher ed sector

You know a year has been crazy when ‘a year like no other’ becomes a cliche and finding the word ‘unprecedented’ in a blogpost is the only thing that’s guaranteed. 

Higher Education, like many other sectors, has faced more than its share of challenges and uphill battles. 

But more than that, the sector at home and abroad has reinvented itself, and found new ways to put students first. 

We’ll certainly be celebrating the end of 2020, but you should also take the time to celebrate the ways the sector has pushed through, universities and individuals within them have focused their efforts on keeping students safe, and making education available to everyone who wants it. 


In the UK, our biggest concern was Brexit (those were the days, hey). After the UK voted to leave the EU, the sector was fearful that EU students would be put off applying to the UK, and would become ineligible for financial support they previously were entitled to. 

In better news, our partner the University of Leicester won a HELOA award, for their use of digital peer-to-peer to aid prospective student decision making. 


In the US, schools started to rethink their recruitment strategy following a NACAC vote in fall 2019 that allowed colleges to more aggressively recruit students, and pursue students at other institutions. 

One report released in February found that, with increasingly aggressive competition, schools must work harder to keep inbound students engaged. 

Unibuddy launched Conversation Insights, a new tool for universities around the world to better understand their prospective students: what they’re thinking about, and when. 


All in all, March was uneventful…

Universities around the world began to close their doors as the coronavirus pandemic took hold globally. 

In the UK, A-Level exams were cancelled, and in the USA, there was a grim outlook from analysts on the future of Higher Education. 

At the time, our CEO Diego Fanara wrote: “Higher Education has a crucial role to play during the coronavirus outbreak. Let’s keep supporting and reassuring each other. We all gain strength from our shared experiences.”

Medical experts warned this was likely to last for at least three more months


The pandemic was “the crisis that launched 1,000 surveys”, according to the Chronicle – but the results were always concerning. A huge number of prospective students at home and abroad were changing their plans as a result of the pandemic. 

The news broke that the UK government would cap student numbers, the first time such a limit was imposed since 2015. 

And the world’s universities began to worry about the impact on finances. Australia’s government offered a bailout, while in universities around the world prepared for dire financial situations. Bloomberg warned it could prove fatal to some schools.


The UK government announced a support package for UK universities – but it wasn’t much of a bailout that the sector had been hoping for. 

700 colleges in the US were reporting open slots for their 2020 classes – far more than usual for the time of year. And there was a significant drop in FAFSA completions. 

It all prompted the question: are any students going to show up this fall?

In Australia, the Go8 met up to discuss plans for the next steps as international students were locked out of the country. 

While in the US, VP Mike Pence and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos pleaded with colleges to open in the fall

UK universities largely kept quiet about their September plans, but Manchester, Bolton and Cambridge were early to move and announce their plans.


International students breathed a sigh of relief as several countries loosened their visa requirements and visa centres around the world reopened

And universities saw some good news too. In the UK, the number of students holding an offer was up compared to last year , while in the US, state schools saw an influx of interest

Protests took place around the world against systemic racism and violence against black people, and colleges came under fire for failing to address the huge racial inequalities and discriminations on their own campuses. On Twitter, academics of color shared their experiences under the #BlackintheIvory hashtag

But some changes started happening. The University of Kentucky removed a fresco that depicts slaves working in a tobacco field. The University of Alabama renamed buildings that have names linked to Confederacy. 60 colleges across California are partnering to deliver action and financial commitment to increase diversity on their campuses.

In the UK there were continued calls for universities to decolonise their curriculum to address the attainment gap between white students and students from BAME backgrounds. Just a fifth of universities have committed to decolonising their curriculum, give a fuller version of British history that addresses injustices, and recognises the contribution of black British people. 


Events went virtual. Hundreds of universities and colleges hosted a virtual event, some for the first time ever. 

In fact, in a figure that looks like a typo, Unibuddy saw a 4682% increase in the number of students attending virtual events in 2020, compared to 2019. 

As universities hosted virtual visit days for the first time ever, we started to think about the campus tour of the future, we saw attendance soar for many universities that went virtual and celebrated the fact they could reach more students who usually were unable to visit in person, we thought about how the UK’s Clearing process might be transformed by digitisation, and we shared best practice and learnt from one another


There was bad news to start the month as the first indications came through that international enrollment would drop. In the US, half of HEIs reported a drop in applications, while in Australia – visa applications dropped by a third. In Europe, a significant number of international students stated they would change their plans if teaching moved online.  

In the UK, one omnishambles stood out among all the rest: Results Day. With complicated plans to determine grades using an algorithm and teacher assessments, it was expected that many students may suffer lower grades than expected. Those fears were realised: 40% of grades were below teacher predictions

Universities barely had time to formulate their response to the situation when the government u-turned, awarded all students their original teacher predicted grades, and uncapped student numbers at universities. 

WonkHE dubbed the whole thing the examnishambles


As fall came around, one question was on the mind of university professionals and students: are we going back to campus? In the US, the sector was radically split over how to deliver teaching, as colleges across the country faced serious outbreaks of coronavirus. At the University of Alabama, an unbelievable 1,899 students were infected

In the UK, UCU warned of an ‘avalanche of infections’ if universities were to reopen. And members of the government’s advisory board – SAGE – pointed to the infamous ‘Fresher’s Flu’ as a point of comparison of disease spread on university campuses. 

With many countries in Europe facing a second wave of the virus – for some worse than the first – plans to reopen universities (and schools) were cast into doubt

Schools in the UAE started deciding to hold almost all classes online-only. 


Unibuddy hosted our first virtual conference and welcomed 1000 professionals from across global higher education to a brand new platform – built by us – for the event. 

In the UK, the Dyson Institute of Engineering and Technology became the first alternative education provider to be given degree-awarding powers.

Canada announced it would open its borders to international students from October 20th, while  the New Zealand government announced it would allow 250 international students into the country in November.


Joe Biden was elected to be the next president of the United States. There was good news for community colleges: Joe Biden has promised to make them free. He’s also pledged free education at public and private schools for students whose families earn under $125,000 – as well as pledging increased grants particularly for non-traditional learners. 

Biden will also kill off Betsy DeVos’ Title IX rule: the sexual harassment rule gave more rights to those accused of sexual assault and was panned by college leaders who said it silenced victims. 

Biden said his election marked a “great day” for educators – and large parts of the sector were pleased. But the President-elect has an uphill battle on his hands to win back the trust of international students around the world.


Which brings us to today. 

Throughout 2020, the Higher Education sector has invented completely new ways to teach, recruit and connect with students – through virtual events, digital fairs and a whole host of online activities. You have adapted in the face of enormous challenges, and it shows your commitment to putting students first. 

It’s been a crazy year for all of us. At times, it’s been overwhelming, difficult and sometimes scary. But more than anything, we’ve seen the power of coming together. 

Coming together with our families and friends, with our colleagues, with the people we rely on for care. We’ve had to find new ways to do it – but we kept sticking together and being there for one another. 

That’s the principle that Unibuddy is built on. When things are harder than ever for students around the world, there are 25,000 buddies ready to help. 

Student ambassadors have given reassurance, support and guidance to thousands of young people who are starting their journey to Higher Education. When they needed someone to be there for them, our university partners and your ambassadors were able to support them. 

So today, let’s celebrate the incredible impact you and your student ambassadors have had – and will continue to have – on prospective students around the world.

We hope you enjoy the holidays and we can’t wait to see you in 2021!


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