‘Unluckiest generation’ bears brunt of cautious admissions round

Sector ‘re-righting itself’ post-pandemic means more miss out on places in ‘one of the toughest university admissions rounds in years’

八月 18, 2022
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A scaling back of admissions among elite institutions led some members of the “unluckiest generation” to miss out on their preferred university place as the sector began to “right itself” following two years of pandemic turmoil.

There were steep drops year-on-year in both the number of students achieving the top A-level grades this results day and the number of accepted applicants at “higher tariff” universities, but these were made to look much starker by two years of abnormal admissions.

While the reduction of nearly 12,000 places at elite institutions for 18-year-olds receiving results in England, Wales and Northern Ireland undoubtedly led to many missing out on places who would have been admitted last year, these universities still retained a higher share of undergraduates than at any point in the past decade, bar 2021.

Similarly, the total number of accepted places was the second highest on record, as was the number getting into their firm choice, as applications reached their highest ever level. 

Experts therefore warned against too close a comparison between this admissions cycle and previous years, and said the true impact of longer-term factors, such as the rising number of 18-year-olds and the tuition fee freeze in England, are only just starting to show.

Mike Nicholson, deputy head of education services at the University of Cambridge, said comparisons should be made only with 2019, the last year that grades were awarded by examination. 

He said in absolute numbers, more students have secured a place at their firm choice place than three years ago, but because there are more applicants in the system this year, the overall percentage is down, with 54.4 per cent of applicants placed at their firm choice this year, compared with 55.7 per cent in 2019.

Lee Elliot Major, professor of social mobility at the University of Exeter, said in many ways this school cohort were the “unluckiest of all” as their education had both been disrupted by the pandemic and they had now faced “one of the toughest university admissions rounds in years”.

He said his biggest concern was that the most disadvantaged students would get “squeezed out” in the “scramble” for places.

The decrease in admissions at “higher tariff” universities all came at the expense of UK-based students, while these types of institutions continued to admit more international students.

But speculation that universities were favouring students from overseas over UK students for undergraduate degrees “doesn’t appear to be the case”, Mr Nicholson added.

This was in part due to a decline in applications from the European Union post-Brexit that had still not been fully compensated for by a rise from other parts of the world, he said.

Matthew Andrews, pro-vice chancellor governance and student affairs at the University of Gloucestershire and a board member for the Association of Heads of University Administration, said it was in postgraduate taught courses that international recruitment was truly “buoyant”.

He said a big uncertainty as universities’ attention switched to filling remaining places via clearing was the large number of applicants who had been offered places but did not respond during the cycle, and whether they will come back into the hunt or decide to sit this year out.

Dr Andrews cautioned against taking a gap year as competition next year is likely to be “at least, if not more, intense than it was this year”, while the 2023 intake will also be the first under the new fees regime, which could mean students pay more for their education over the course of their career.

While he said changes in admissions in 2022 had been to a certain extent the sector “righting itself” post-pandemic, he predicted that trends started this year will continue as some over-subscribed universities had recognised this was “not great for student or staff experience”.

He said he hoped this would lead to more students recognising the breadth of excellence across the sector, while other trends, such as more students choosing to stay closer to home to save money, may well benefit a wider geographical spread of universities. 

“We have a tendency to focus on a very small number of institutions…If we channel students to consider a very narrow range of options, we are going to increase competition and, for the students who do not get there, the sense of disappointment,” he said.

Ulrike Tillmann, chair of the Royal Society’s education committee, welcomed the continued popularity of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects, but said all should be concerned by “continued declines in the number of students taking arts and humanities subjects”, which showed how a “career-focused rhetoric from some senior figures is narrowing horizons and shutting off options for our young people”.




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