More efficient application processes and progression accords have yielded promising results, Rebecca Attwood and Tariq Tahir report
Students are being much better matched to degree courses and are more appropriately qualified for their courses than they have been in the past, admissions tutors said this week.
Admissions heads reported that they are relying less on the annual scramble of clearing to get "bums on seats", which can often lead students to sign up for courses for which they are ill-equipped, increasing the risk of dropouts.
Record numbers of A-level passes, meaning more students getting their first choice of university, and improved applications processes, combined with an increase in "progression accords" signed between universities and local "feeder" colleges, appeared to have significantly reduced the risk of mismatches between students and courses, they said.
As The Times Higher went to press, 333,666 students had confirmed their university place, compared with 313,286 at the same time last year. Some 6,074 had found a place through clearing within four days of the release of A-level results last week, compared with 5,351 last year.
Louise Andronicou, a senior admissions tutor for the faculty of arts and human sciences at London South Bank University, said applications to the faculty had increased 41 per cent in the past two years, as a direct result of the growing emphasis on progression accords signed with schools and colleges - formal agreements supporting direct progression on to degree courses.
Ms Andronicou said the faculty had eight accords and more "in the pipeline".
"Progression accords take the worry out of the applications system. And they are not just paper agreements - I refuse to consider one unless we've formed a solid relationship with the school or college. It formalises an existing relationship."
Michael Hill, head of widening participation at Kingston University, said his institution had a compact with 17 local colleges and schools.
"This year we've had more than 500 applications through that route and at present we will be accepting 250 students. It started last year when we had 70 students coming through."
The agreements allowed more flexibility if students had not achieved the desired grades.
"Through the relationship that we've built up with colleges we can ask them to provide references, for instance, about [students'] motivation, attendance and punctuality," Mr Hill said.
Stephen Boffey, Hertfordshire university's pro vice-chancellor, said: "There is more responsibility on the part of universities to match students with the right courses." He added that about 50 students had been granted places through progression agreements this year.
Giles Lesser, director of marketing with responsibility for student recruitment at Staffordshire University, said clearing was "calmer" this year, partly because there were more ways of matching students to courses, including progression deals.
A spokesman for the University of East London said inquiries from prospective students had been noticeably more relevant this year.
The availability, for the first time, of A-level students' "unit grades" - breaking down their overall performance to show how well they did in each individual unit of their A-level assessment - was also understood to be helping improve the matching of students to courses.
Following a pilot scheme last year, about 160 universities and colleges expressed an interest in being able to access this data once A-level results were available.
English and maths top of A levels
University heads have welcomed the comeback made by traditional academic subjects in this year's A levels, writes Rebecca Attwood.
Maths, science and Spanish experienced a surge in popularity, while English and maths are now the top two subjects.
Meanwhile, the growth of less traditional subjects, including psychology and media, film and television studies, appears to be tailing off.
Steve Smith, Universities UK vice-president and vice-chancellor of Exeter University, said the trend towards traditional subjects put paid to suggestions that students were "turning to 'soft' subjects" and was "good news for universities, the economy - and for the UK generally".
The new subject of critical thinking saw the biggest percentage rise, 59.2 per cent, but numbers studying the subject are still small, with just over 2,000 candidates out of 805,657 entries.
Further mathematics rose 8.3 per cent to 7,872 entries, while mathematics rose 7.3 per cent to more than 60,000 entries.
Alice Rogers, vice-president of the London Mathematical Society, said: "We are delighted with these figures. It is very encouraging to see that more students are realising that mathematics is a very valuable part of a portfolio of study, irrespective of their intended degree subject choices."
The other top subject increases were sciences (8 per cent), politics (7.5 per cent) and Spanish (6.6 per cent), although overall entries for modern languages remained stable.
Computing and ICT were down 10 per cent and 6 per cent respectively, and geography fell by 2.7 per cent. Although still just in the top ten of the most popular subjects, geography was overtaken by media, film and television studies.
However, media, film and television - one of the biggest boom subjects last year - saw a smaller increase this year of 3 per cent. Numbers studying psychology have also stabilised.
Overall, the A-level pass rate rose 0.3 percentage points from 96.6 per cent last year to 96.9 per cent, prompting a repeat of the annual debate over whether this was evidence of grade inflation, or that the UK was incapable of celebrating the success of its students.
More than one in four A-level entries was awarded an A, with the percentage of entries graded at this level increasing from 24.1 per cent last year to 25.3 per cent.