Tens of thousands of students discovering their A-level results face a last-minute scramble to secure places at UK universities, many of which have said that competition will be fierce and places hard to find for the most popular courses.
On Wednesday, the eve of results day for A-levels, BTecs and the government’s new T-levels, university admissions teams reported a surge in interest from students looking for places through clearing, a process that matches unplaced students with unfilled courses.
In what is expected to be a turbulent year for admissions, A-level results in England, Wales and Northern Ireland were expected to drop sharply after the government intervened to rein in grade inflation over the last two years of teacher-assessed grades.
The first cohort to sit A-levels without doing GCSE exams, which were cancelled because of the pandemic, are expected to do better on average than in 2019 when exams were last sat. But grades are likely to be significantly lower than last year, when almost 45% of all A-levels were graded A or A*.
Schools that benefited from the biggest grade uplift during the pandemic are likely to see the sharpest falls, among them independent schools where the proportion of top grades rose by nine percentage points to 70%, compared with six percentage points elsewhere.
On Thursday, the education secretary, James Cleverly, said it was “always the plan” to get results down this year after more generous grades during the pandemic, but insisted that most students would get their first choice of universities.
Speaking to Sky News he said: “Students might get slightly lower grades than perhaps they were expecting and hoping for [but] I think we should see the majority of students get into the institutions they want to.
“Today we are going to see hundreds of thousands of happy students getting into their first choice institutions and plenty of others going to great universities or apprenticeships or employment, using clearing, or clearing plus all the other advice and assistance available to them.”
He added: “What we have got to do is get back to school-based teaching and exam-based assessment. This year, we have taken a step towards normality. This is what the teaching profession wants and its students, employers and institutions want. We have done it in a progressive and fair way.”
Headteachers in the state sector – who have had an early viewing of their results, which went out to schools on Wednesday – were cautiously optimistic, reporting few surprises and in some cases better than expected results. Uncertainty remains around university places, however, with higher demand from a bigger cohort and conservative offer-making from leading institutions.
Cleverly said: “Despite the nerves that people will feel, I want to reassure anyone collecting their results that whatever your grades, there has never been a better range of opportunities available.
“Whether going on to one of our world-leading universities, a high-quality apprenticeship, or the world of work, students have exciting options as they prepare to take their next steps.”
An analysis from the Liberal Democrats suggested 75,000 A-level entries would be downgraded from A and A* because of changes to grade boundaries. The research, based on a simplified version of exam boards’ grading process that draws a rigid midpoint between 2021 and pre-pandemic grading, suggests some subjects may be worse affected than others.
Mathematics, sociology, law, English and business studies had the smallest reduction in A and A* grades, whereas music, drama, Spanish, performing arts and PE had the biggest. There was a broad trend towards humanities subjects being more affected by the shifting grade boundaries.
Mark Corver, founder of dataHE, which advises universities on admissions, said he expected “the gap between expectations and outcomes might be very wide this year”, given that the current cohort had seen their slightly older peers “going to selective universities in record numbers”.
“It wouldn’t have been unreasonable if they envisaged a similar future for themselves, but that’s quite unlikely to occur,” he said. He added that this year’s admissions cycle would feel like a step backwards, closer to the “supply-constrained” years of 2010-12, and reversing “a decade of essentially increasing student choice”.
The university admissions service, Ucas, expects “the majority” of students will gain a place at their first choice university, but the situation on the ground is still fluid.
Ella Kirkbride, the head of admissions at the University of Hull, said: “We anticipate demand for places through clearing will be high. This is already reflected in the numbers who have signed up for our clearing updates – which is up by 228%.”
Loughborough, Hull, Northumbria, De Montfort and Nottingham Trent universities all reported more interest and inquiries from students in switching courses in clearing.
Nick Hudson, the chief executive officer of Ormiston Academies Trust, was hopeful most of his students would get the places they were aiming for. “We are seeing strong results above the average grades achieved in 2019 and in line with 2020 when exams were not taken – and that applies to students across the board including those who are high-performing and those who are disadvantaged.”
Higher education insiders say there is enough capacity across the sector as a whole to offset the restricted supply at the most selective universities, with space at lower-ranked institutions, many of which have ambitious growth plans as well as places freed up by a fall in part-time and mature student applications.
They are also cautioning students who are unhappy with their offers to think hard before deferring and reapplying next year, warning a further increase in 18-year-olds in the UK next year means application numbers are likely to be even higher and competition greater.
Meanwhile, Cleverly has backed the use of data on a student’s background to determine university places, dismissing suggestions in some quarters of “social engineering” in favour of people from disadvantaged areas.
In an interview with the Telegraph, he said: “If universities are recognising that for some students in some circumstances, getting the top grade or whatever grade they are making offers against, are harder than students from other schools and other backgrounds then I’m not uncomfortable with that.”
If a student’s better performance is against a more difficult background, it is not wrong “that that is recognised”, Cleverly added.