Lower-ranked universities faced a squeeze on recruitment as A-level results were released, with top- and especially middle-tier institutions driving the bulk of sector growth.
At the start of results day, Ucas data showed that the number of applicants placed at universities with the highest entry standards had increased by 3.4 per cent year-on-year, with medium-tariff institutions enjoying a 4.2 per cent upturn. In contrast, the least selective institutions reported growth of only 1.2 per cent.
When only UK-domiciled school-leavers were considered, recruitment by lower-tariff universities actually declined by 0.3 per cent. Medium-tariff institutions boosted their intake by 5.2 per cent, with the most selective institutions growing by 1.2 per cent.
The data suggest that lower-ranked universities are losing out to more prestigious rivals in an environment in which the pool of domestic 18-year-olds is shrinking and student number controls have been removed. Enrolment via vocational BTEC qualifications, which had driven a lot of growth at that end of the sector in recent years, is believed to have flattened out.
But the data also appear to indicate that the most selective universities can relax their entry requirements only so far when the proportion of students getting top A-level grades has fallen for the fifth year in a row, possibly for fear of adversely affecting their league table standing.
This year, 25.8 per cent of all entries received an A or A* grade, compared with 25.9 per cent last year, while the proportion of A-level entries in traditional academic subjects favoured by elite universities also slipped slightly, from 51.2 per cent to 51.1 per cent, after years of consecutive growth.
Sir Steve Smith, vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter and the chair of Ucas, said that middle-ranking institutions were able to pick off applicants who would previously have gone to less selective institutions, while declining grades meant that more applicants were in their traditional territory.
“The squeezed middle has become the bulging middle,” Sir Steve said. “Competition is tight at the top and competition is tight at the bottom, but competition is slightly less tight in the middle.”
European Union recruitment continued to grow despite the vote for Brexit, increasing by 10.8 per cent year-on-year as of results day. Top-ranked institutions were able to capitalise on this the most, reporting 14.1 per cent growth.
Non-EU recruitment was in effect flat, increasing by just 0.4 per cent on results day, but higher tariff institutions were again the biggest winners, expanding recruitment by 2.2 per cent. In contrast, the least selective institutions lost out, with their non-EU recruitment declining by 2.9 per cent.
Mike Nicholson, director of student recruitment and admissions at the University of Bath, said that middle- and top-tier institutions might be looking to expand this year with one eye on potential uncertainty in coming years over EU recruitment and the impact of A-level reforms.
“If you have got capacity to take more this year, you probably will, to safeguard yourself against what might happen next year,” he said.
Overall, a record number of students were placed in UK higher education as A-level results were released, with acceptances up 2.9 per cent year-on-year to 423,880.
Initial Ucas data show a further 6,970 students were placed on the first day of clearing, nearly double last year’s figure.
“A lot of these students were pretty well locked into the decision to come and study in Britain when the referendum took place,” he said. “Future years are more uncertain.”