Universities potentially face their most turbulent and uncertain admissions period ever as many top research-intensive institutions enter clearing for the first time, leading sector figures have warned.
Half of the 24 universities in the Russell Group have so far confirmed that they will compete for high-achieving students as they receive their A‑level results on 15 August.
The universities of Glasgow, Leeds, Manchester, Southampton and Warwick are among those that expect to have places available – last year an estimated 11,500 vacancies at Russell Group universities went unfilled.
Institutions have also adapted their offer-making to attract students with A‑level grades of ABB or above (or their equivalent in other qualifications) as they are exempt from universities’ student number controls.
According to council minutes published in March and April, Newcastle University was “making as many ABB offers as possible”, with the number of offers overall up by 20 per cent on last year.
Dominic Shellard, vice-chancellor of De Montfort University, said the decision to lower the quota exemption threshold from AAB to ABB this year would ramp up competition for students because many institutions in effect were outside number controls.
“At many places, almost every student applying will be getting ABB, so it is a completely free market for student recruitment,” he said.
“We are talking about millions of pounds at stake, so universities will use some very muscular tactics to recruit students in clearing.”
Noting that institutions would struggle to absorb year-on-year undergraduate losses, Professor Shellard predicted that some might offer scholarships and bursaries to poach or retain ABB students.
The “whole dynamic of recruitment had changed” since higher fees were introduced, he observed.
When he was pro vice-chancellor at the University of Sheffield from 2008 to 2010, “admissions ran from September to January and that was it”, he said. “Admissions is now an all-year affair for all types of university.
“The idea that clearing is a process for runners-up has also changed as many high-quality students are going into it.”
The art of the offer
However, changes in offer-making this year will be more significant to recruitment than clearing activity, predicted Dan Shaffer, senior manager at Supporting Professionalism in Admissions, a body that supports university admissions teams.
Universities have taken advantage of new rules that allow them to recruit 3 per cent above their undergraduate-places quota without facing a fine, said Mr Shaffer, who is head of professionalism in admissions at the organisation.
“Many institutions do not appear to have been so cautious [in their offers] because they have a little more flexibility,” he said.
The number of students “trading up” to other universities if they unexpectedly achieved ABB would again be fairly limited as applicants tend not to change courses at the last minute, he added.
Last year, only 1,300 of the 464,900 students accepted to courses through Ucas went through its “Adjustment” process for those with better-than-expected grades.
Nick Foskett, vice-chancellor of Keele University, also believed that clearing activity among Russell Group universities would be limited because they have already made many more offers to students.
He said the leading research-intensives that do enter clearing are likely to be fishing for a “very small group of students – those who have been rejected from their first-choice institution after missing out on straight As”.
“There are not huge numbers of these students, so clearing will be done and dusted in a morning for these institutions,” he added.
Students could face difficulties if there is a repeat of the grade deflation that occurred last year, when only 80,000 students instead of a predicted 85,000 achieved AAB at A level or the equivalent, Professor Foskett said. This year, 115,000 are predicted to gain ABB.
“Those predicted ABB or better who end up with three Bs might be squeezed this year,” he said.
“Universities will find it relatively easy to fill their student number control, so these students might be pushed to find a place and might have to come back next year in the main applications process.”
Tactics and targets for A-level results day
The target student
Jack Muir, 19, who is studying business management at the University of Surrey, is exactly the type of student that universities will be targeting in clearing.
Last year, Mr Muir, from the West Midlands, put Oxford Brookes University as his firm choice after selecting a course there requiring grades of ABC at A level. However, he secured far higher grades than predicted – A*AB – and became part of the coveted group of AAB students seeking higher-status courses.
“One of the universities that I originally looked at was Surrey, and I really liked it,” said Mr Muir, adding that he did not apply because his predicted grades were too low.
“I was unsure about changing because it had been a while since I had been to Surrey and everything was sorted with Oxford Brookes,” he said of A‑level results day.
But he switched to Surrey via Ucas Adjustment, the process through which those with unexpectedly good grades can change their choice of institution.
Because of his late transfer he did not get his first choice for accommodation, but was pleased with what he was given and is happy on his course.
Unconditional: the hunt for the best
The University of Birmingham surprised the sector by making 1,000 “unconditional” offers to students this year.
About a quarter of undergraduate places at the institution have been offered – regardless of actual A‑level results – to students predicted to score straight As. In return, they were expected to make Birmingham their firm choice with Ucas.
David Eastwood, the university’s vice-chancellor, believes the unconditional offers will drive candidates to excel in their A-level exams.
“We think there is no danger of them coasting,” Professor Eastwood said. “After all, their A levels will be with them for the rest of their lives – future employers will be very interested in them – and these are intensely serious young people.”
Advisers from Birmingham City University will be visiting local schools and colleges on A‑level results day to offer students on-the-spot places.
The scheme – “Keep Calm and Carry on to Clearing” – will allow those who have not met their grade requirements to speak to the university’s careers advisers in person or to academics by phone.
“Clearing is often an anxious time for students,” said Lyn Holder, head of outreach and enquiry management at Birmingham City.
“Our advice is don’t panic. Take time to research the right course and right university for you. Check websites and don’t be afraid to ask for guidance.”