Ahead of A-level results, UK sector ‘sits on a knife edge’

A second year of falling entry rates for UK 18-year-olds would be ‘a seismic moment for the sector’, admissions experts predict

August 7, 2023
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The future of the UK university sector sits on a “knife edge” ahead of an A-level results day that could deliver another fall in entry rates, it has been warned.

Following the inflated grades of the last few years, the 2023 results are expected to return to pre-pandemic levels for what experts have called the “unluckiest generation of all”.

Last year there was a drop in the 18-year-old entry rate, which was not driven by a fall in demand but by a collapse in the chances of applicants getting the place they wanted, according to Mark Corver, co-founder of the dataHE consultancy and a former director of analysis and research at Ucas.

“The strategic worry for the sector this year will be what this entry rate does next,” he said.

“The future recruitment health of the sector rests almost exclusively on 18-year-olds. If their entry rate rises, getting back on to the pre-pandemic trend, then that future growth will look more secure but if the entry rate stalls or, worse, suffers another fall then the outlook for the sector will darken considerably.

“The next few weeks are going to be an important period for the sector and students alike with the data pointing to outcomes being on a knife edge, with the future direction of the sector at stake.”

Analysis by dataHE shows that despite an extra 20,000 18-year-olds in the population this year, there are 6,600 fewer applicants looking for a place at university because of a record fall in the application rate.

It estimated that the overall offer rate has recovered slightly compared with 2022-23 but is still the fourth lowest of the past decade. The rejection rate at high tariff universities will fall from a record 39 per cent last year, dataHE predicts, but will remain the second highest in the post-2012 era.

If the success rate of UK 18-year-old applicants is similar to last year, dataHE expects that the entry rate will fall to 35.5 per cent, reflecting the drop in the application rate.

“Two years of falling entry rates for UK 18-year-olds would be a seismic moment for the sector,” added Mr Corver.

“This is by no means certain. But a combination of weak demand and still anaemic appetite for UK students from higher tariff universities points to a fall in the entry rate being distinctly likely.

“Something exceptional will need to happen with success rates over the next few weeks to avoid this.”

Lee Elliot Major, professor of social mobility at the University of Exeter, predicted that fewer A-level students will secure higher grades as tougher grade boundaries are reintroduced.

“The 2023 cohort is in many ways the unluckiest generation of all,” he said. “They will also be waiting nervously for their results for the first time in their lives after not taking GCSEs during the pandemic years.”

Professor Elliot Major said he worries that these factors will result in a “backward step for social mobility” and that poorer students, already disproportionately scarred by the pandemic, may lose out in a new highly competitive era that will continue to develop over the next decade.

Mike Nicholson, the director of recruitment, admissions and participation at the University of Cambridge, said universities have been able to model against 2019 grade distribution so there is greater stability in offer-making this year.

“Highly selective courses which over-recruited in 2020-22 have been more cautious with offers this year,” he said.

“It could mean they fall slightly short of their intended target, so either will show more leniency to existing offer holders who fall slightly short of the necessary grades or have some spaces in clearing.”


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