By Mary Curnock Cook, former CEO of UCAS\r\nWould everyone please stop scaring aspiring university students into thinking that this is a bad time to be starting university? Why on earth is it a good idea to defer your university application to next year when gap years will be blighted by poor job opportunities and travel restrictions? On top of that, if mass deferrals from 2020 are added to the expected intake next year, 2021 could quickly become the most competitive year to enter university in recent history.\r\nAlready we know that the 18-year-old population starts to increase again in 2021, for the first time since 2009, and we could expect international student applications to be sharply up after thousands of overseas students’ plans were thwarted by the virus in 2020.\r\nInstead, 2020 looks like being the best year for university admissions due to a combination of a low-point in the school leaver population, a likely dip in international enrolments, and general uncertainty because of the virus crisis. Despite the lottery of calculated exam grades, 2020 could be the year for thousands of students to step into the university place of their dreams without having to negotiate clearing or pleading calls from school to university for lenience over missed grades.\r\nOnce there, the 2020 intake will be part of an admittedly slightly experimental but nonetheless unique cohort of students participating in an historic shift in education practice unlike anything seen in universities for centuries. If universities are to succeed in this ultra-compressed digital transformation, they will need students to travel with them, as part of the scholarly community, participating fully to influence and shape modern higher education for future generations.\r\nStudents, and their parents, may feel that this was not exactly what they signed up for when they filled out their UCAS forms in January. It isn’t. But if students enrol with an open mind, they could become part of the heroic generation which cocked a snook at tradition and were bold enough to join the experiment which will herald a new age of higher education.\r\nDo they really want another three years of classroom-style teaching? Of course they don’t. They want to be prepared for 21st Century employment where communication, enterprise and commerce take place in a digital world. What’s not to love about higher education which is mediated through digital interfaces where they are the best way to teach and learn, saving face-to-face contact for the knowledge transfer that only meaningful human interaction can create?\r\nIf some social aspects of university are curtailed in the early part of the academic year, this will be a shared constraint with the rest of the population. If you’re not allowed to socialise, play sport and go to the student union bar at uni, you probably wouldn’t be allowed to had you stayed at home.\r\nAnd if it’s value for money for your £9,250 fees that’s worrying you, I’d wager that the corona-cohort will look back and consider that the extraordinary circumstances in which they embarked on their higher education journey made them better students, better citizens and prepared them better for their careers than any preceding cohort. Bluntly, short-term disruption at university is a better option for most students than short-term disruption at home or a year on the job market.\r\nThis article was originally published in The Times.