More than 53,510 UK-based students were scrambling for places on university courses on Friday, the day after receiving lower grades in their A-level results, with many missing out on their offers in the most competitive year for university places in a decade.
This year’s number of applicants marked as “free to be placed in clearing” on the Ucas website is the highest in more than a decade, and compares with 39,230 at the same point last year. Some of these students missed their grades while others declined their offers, and some may decide not to go to university.
By Friday, 6,640 UK school-leavers had found places through clearing, a 33% increase on last year. A third more students – 23,640 – accepted their insurance choices after missing the grades for their top choice.
University admissions directors reported unprecedented levels of demand in clearing, with phone lines busier than ever, including from students with top grades.
The University of Sheffield said it had filled all its places in clearing on the same day as A-level results were given out.
“This is an unprecedented year for clearing and for the first time in over a decade we’ve closed clearing to new applicants after just one day, due to the large volume of high-achieving students we had apply yesterday,” said Dan Barcroft, director of admissions at the University of Sheffield.
He added that fewer places in clearing were available for science courses and more for arts and humanities. “We noticed the quality of applicants was high across all subject areas but particularly in science, psychology and maths, which were also some of our most competitive courses.”
Although A-level results were lower than during the pandemic, they were higher than the mid-point between 2019 and 2021, which was the calculation most admissions teams used to underpin their offer-making.
As a result, some universities gave out too many offers, and therefore students who missed their grades for popular institutions and courses were not accepted, resulting in a more competitive clearing.
Mark Corver, the founder of DataHe, which advises universities on recruitment, said the fact that highly selective universities had cut their intake of 18-year-olds from the UK by 13% combined with there being more 18-year-olds meant that fewer students achieved a place at their first choice university – 65% compared with 73% last year.
Mike Nicholson, the director of admissions at the University of Cambridge, noted that humanities courses had been “a bit more flexible on grades” as departments have seen a “steady decline in interest” in recent years and need to fill spaces.
Conversely, students who pick all sciences at A-level tend to receive better grades overall, meaning that “universities are not having to accept people who narrowly missed their grades, therefore students will be in clearing”.
Admissions experts cautioned students who did not obtain a place at their chosen university against deferring in the hope that it might be easier to get a place next year.
Ucas’s chief executive, Clare Marchant, said the growth in the number of 18-year-olds in the population would create “a more competitive environment for students in the years to come”.
Corver suggested deferral was “probably not a wise thing to do” as an increase in 18-year-olds in the UK next year means that applications could be “even higher” next year. “[This is not] a one-off unusual cycle.”
He said there were enough places across the sector to offset the shortage at the most popular institutions; however this would mean students might have to accept a lower-ranked institution than the one they had hoped for.
He noted this might be especially difficult for this cohort to come to terms with, given that they received higher GCSE grades during the pandemic, while their older peers had gone to highly selective universities in “record numbers” after the lifting of the numbers cap in 2012.
While spaces are constrained at the top, many lower ranked universities have extra places due to ambitious growth plans and spare room as a result of a fall in part-time and mature student applications.
Prof Katie Normington, the vice-chancellor of De Montfort University, said students should be aware that changes to the student loan regime from 2023 would extend the repayment term from 30 to 40 years. “For people going into lower paid jobs it will be much worse for them to defer. Many students should think carefully.”
The number of students accepted on to UK degree courses fell this year, according to Ucas data, but was still the second highest on record, and higher than the last year exams were held, in 2019. The day after results were published, 435,560 had places at university, compared with 446,500 last year, a 2.5% drop.