About 28,000 students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland who applied to go to university are without an offer just days before A-level results are due to be published, according to data experts.
In what promises to be one of the most competitive university admission rounds in recent memory, analysis by DataHE found the total number of 18-year-olds not holding an offer has increased from about 16,000 at this stage in the admissions process in 2019 to 27,850 in 2022.
Some of the increase is due to the fact there are more applicants than ever before, but experts say it is also likely to have been driven by a rise in rejection rates and more conservative offer-making by high-tariff institutions that want to rein in recruitment after the excesses of the pandemic.
According to Mark Corver, the cofounder of DataHE, the risk of applicants not holding a single offer at this point has risen from 6% to 9% in the space of two years, a 50% jump proportionally, back to levels last seen when universities had to stay within number controls.
“This will feel like quite a shock after nearly a decade of steadily improving chances of getting an offer,” said Corver.
His warning came as England’s exams regulator Ofqual and the university admissions service Ucas sent out an unprecedented letter to all A-level students to try to reassure them, as tension mounts before results day on Thursday.
The letter says nearly 300,000 UK 18-year-olds are holding a firm offer, up 7,000 on last year and the highest on record, with 30,000 courses available in clearing.
There is still a huge amount of uncertainty, however. After two years of higher than average grades during the pandemic – when exams were cancelled and work was teacher-assessed – the government asked regulators to set boundaries so that grades would be halfway between those in 2019 and 2021, with grades to return to pre-pandemic levels in 2023.
Last week it was reported that tens of thousands of A-level students with offers from their preferred university could be at risk of losing their places because of a projected fall of 10 percentage points in the number of A and A* grades in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
After record results last year, when 44.8% of grades were either A or A* at A-level, experts in the sector calculate that with the government recalibration this will fall to 35% (up from 25.5% in 2019).
While almost one in five (19.1%) grades were A* last year, this year the proportion is expected to decline to 13.5%. Similarly, the number of A* to C grades is expected to go down from 88.5% in 2021 to 82%.
Corver said students, even those without offers, should not be overanxious. “Places are there, but they might be at universities or for subjects that might not have been on an applicant’s initial shortlist and might need a bit of research and flexibility to take advantage of.”
Universities which received A-level results on Friday night confirmed there is still capacity, but they are warning that clearing will be busy and said students may have to consider related subjects and alternative institutions in order to secure a place.
Meanwhile, Ucas disputed DataHE’s analysis – which is based on Ucas data on the number of students “free to be placed in clearing”.
Clare Marchant, the Ucas chief executive, said a record number of 18-year-olds applied this year and its data showed more than 97% of these students received at least one offer, which was also a record.
“There are many reasons why students are eligible to find a place in clearing. In some cases students, who are extremely savvy and are constantly assessing their options, increasingly see clearing as a great option to find a place.
“The vast majority of universities and colleges will have courses available this week and my advice to students without a place is to carry on with your research and reach out to Ucas if you require support during clearing.”
Alix Delaney, head of admissions at the University of East Anglia, said: “We are expecting it to be a very busy clearing with a lot of activity and a lot of universities with vacancies.
“Although there may be some disappointment for those who have applied to highly competitive courses, I think there is still capacity in the whole system for students to find a place at a university, should they wish to go to study this September.
“They just might have to think about related courses, subjects or alternative universities.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We have been working with universities to ensure offers reflect the grades students will receive this summer. [There are] 281,500 18-year-olds in the UK holding a firm offer, up 7,000 on last year and the highest on record – meaning more applicants are in a prime position to secure a preferred course than ever before.
“Competition for places at the most selective universities has always been high and this year is no different. There are lots of opportunities available this year including nearly 30,000 courses available through clearing, or high-quality vocational options that are just as prestigious and rewarding as academic routes.”