For the first time in years, sixth-formers who don’t get the A-level grades they need in August are unlikely to be able to talk their way into top universities, experts are warning. They say elite institutions are facing unprecedented demand on space and a new era of much tougher competition for places is dawning, with fewer opportunities through clearing.
Many leading universities were forced to take thousands more students than they expected to last year after the government’s U-turn on A-level grades. This year, with grade inflation anticipated again, some top universities have made fewer offers. Experts say that when results come out on 10 August, admissions officers at the most prestigious universities will stick rigidly to offer grades so that resources including libraries, halls of residence and labs are not overwhelmed.
Clare Marchant, chief executive of admissions service Ucas sought to reassure parents that a record number of students would probably get their first choice. However, experts say there will be little room for manoeuvre on the most competitive courses.
Mark Corver, a consultant who advises universities on admissions, says: “This summer there will be more cases of universities really sticking to the letter of their offer conditions. Applicants have got used to a more favourable system in recent years and they may find this a bit of a shock.”
However, students thinking of waiting until 2022 could find things just as competitive then. The trend in rising grades is likely to continue and the start of a 10-year surge in the number of 18-year-olds will put even more pressure on places at popular institutions.
Corver, of Data HE consultancy, who was previously a director of analysis and research at Ucas, warns disappointed students: “I would not recommend pulling out this year in the expectation of a clearer run next year. University entry looks set to stay pressured for a while and may well get worse.”
Private schools have reportedly begun lobbying top institutions to take students who do not meet their offer conditions. But Corver says because so many applicants are likely to achieve their offer grades this year, “it will be harder for universities to take people in when they have missed a grade.”
He says: “This is the first time in living memory that a shortage in places has been caused by a limit in the physical capacity to take more students at some universities.”
Mike Nicholson, the director of undergraduate admissions and outreach at the University of Bath, one of the selective institutions that significantly cut its offers this year, says that applications for popular subjects including computer sciences and biomedical sciences have “gone through the roof”. He predicts there will be few places in clearing this year to study at the most selective universities.
Nicholson urges year-12 sixth formers to think tactically about their five university choices in order to protect themselves. “This year we’ve seen more students who went for five popular courses ending up with only one or two or even no offers. In future, students will need to think about having a fall-back option,” he says.
Applicants to “high tariff” universities were 20% more likely to be rejected this year, with application success rates at these universities falling to a level not seen since 2013, according to Data HE’s analysis of Ucas statistics.
Tracy Bennett, a parent from Shropshire, says it was upsetting watching her daughter, who went to a state sixth-form college, receive rejections from all four of the medicine courses she applied to this year. Although her predicted grades met their requirements, and despite doing well in the pre-application test for medicine, she was not even invited to an interview.
“We are gearing ourselves up for A-level results day, to join the scrum of clearing,” says Bennett. Her daughter plans to try to win a place on a biomedicine course, with the hope of transferring to medicine later.
“So much has been lost these past 18 months for these students,” she adds. “The most we are hoping for now is to secure something, as something seems better than nothing.”
On the face of it, Fran Inman’s son, who went to a state school and has five offers at popular universities to study politics, has fared better. But she is worried that after months struggling to learn independently at home, he might not have performed well enough in internal assessments to justify the AAB grades he needs for his first-choice Russell Group university.
Inman, from Bradford-on-Avon, near Bath, says: “Offers appear to have been given as if no pandemic and no interruption had taken place.”
Lee Elliot Major, the professor of social mobility at the University of Exeter, says: “There’s a huge worry that efforts by highly selective universities to attract students from poorer backgrounds will be put back years following the pandemic.”
He explains: “We are facing a perfect storm – larger learning loss suffered during the pandemic by poorer pupils, unconscious bias in teacher assessments benefiting middle-class pupils, the cancellation of face-to-face university outreach work, and increasing competition for degree places fuelled by grade inflation.”
Holly Wimbush, an English teacher at Holmes Chapel comprehensive school and sixth form in Cheshire, says that pressure around grades and university places has badly affected her students this year. “Student wellbeing has decreased. I’ve had countless emails, video calls and meetings regarding progress, admission boundary grades and managing anxiety.”
However, experts say that even if the pandemic fades away, this tough new environment for applicants will not. Corver says an “extraordinary” 25% rise in the number of 18-year-olds in the population by 2030 will drive up competition for places. The effect of this will be felt even more strongly, they say, because the number of young people who want to go to university is continuing to rise each year. This is a long-term trend that shows no signs of stopping, despite comments by the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, that he thinks too many people are going to university.
As a result, modelling by Data HE shows that universities could have to take at least 60,000 extra students a year by 2026, and 100,000 a year by 2030.
In addition, universities predict that any move to push A-level grades back down to pre-pandemic levels next year or beyond may prove politically too difficult for the government.
Corver explains: “Last summer governments across the UK were forced into U-turns on grading policy because they saw that when people are faced with having their dreams of the university they feel they deserve snatched away, it triggers a very deep opposition.”
Nicholson says that rather than leave everyone in the dark, the government urgently needs to start a discussion about any plans to tackle grade inflation.
“You could argue the generation coming through to do A-levels next year are probably the ones who have been most disrupted by the pandemic,” he says. “They have never had to sit big exams, as they missed their GCSEs, so is it really fair to push A-level grades back for them?”
Dr Philip Purvis, deputy head at the independent Croydon high school, says: “Through no fault of their own, students who intend to go to university in 2022 face some of the fiercest competition in the last 20 or so years, since Labour first announced the target of getting 50% of young people into university.”
He says this year many competitive universities kept gifted applicants hanging for months before telling them whether they had an offer, and calls for far better communication next year.
Nick Hillman, the director of the Higher Education Policy Institute thinktank, says: “If students haven’t got the grades they need to do the course they love this year, they need to know it isn’t going to get any easier next year.”
He says students should only take a gap year if they have something useful to do in it. “If they stay at home and play Minecraft their CV will look terrible and they may lose their love of learning.”