A-level results: cautious university offer-making ‘here to stay’

Financial uncertainties and changing demographics mean this year’s admissions cycle signals shift in universities’ approach

August 12, 2022
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A complex A-level results day could herald the start of a fundamental shift in UK universities’ approach to admissions, as financial uncertainties converge with the realities of post-pandemic recovery and changing demographics to pose several key challenges.

Regulator Ofqual’s decision to try to deflate grades back towards 2019 levels will mean they will be lower in 2022 than 2021, although still higher than before the pandemic, because the regulator’s plan is being enacted in two stages to reduce its impact on the current cohort.

Questions remain about what this will look like in reality, and it is unclear how this uncertainty has affected the already difficult art of predicting grades, with some experts forecasting a larger than normal gap between predicted and actual grades, which could lead to more applicants missing their offers.

Universities are also looking to rebalance after larger than planned intakes in the past two years, meaning that an already more cautious approach to offer-making could transfer into less leniency in accepting those who have just fallen short.

Alix Delany, the University of East Anglia’s associate director for admissions, stressed that there were enough places in the sector for any student who wanted to go to university this year, but she was expecting clearing to be much busier and students will have to “think a little more out of the box in terms of considering other universities or courses”.

Mark Corver, co-founder of the dataHE consultancy and a former director of analysis and research at Ucas, said if you took Ofqual’s guidance at face value, the 50 per cent of 18-year-old applicants who achieved AAB or better in 2021 should drop to 40 per cent this year – halfway to the 30 per cent it was in 2019.

Such a drop would be “felt very strongly by applicants”, particularly as the cohort has the “strongest GCSE results ever”, Mr Corver said. This has probably influenced predicted grades, which could also have reached a “record high”, he added. 

“So having the grade distribution move back will feel very harsh. The collective expectation of applicants is that the grades will increase. And for a number of factors, universities are not as well placed to step in and neutralise the resulting dismay by taking people anyway,” Mr Corver said.

Mary Curnock Cook, a former chief executive of Ucas, agreed that highly selective universities may be less likely to accept students who do not quite get the grades this year.

“A whole generation of teachers has got used to applicants with a decent hand of A levels being in a strong position. Now the tables may have turned, meaning that more sixth-formers will need support in clearing this year,” she said.

Mr Corver noted that higher-tariff universities “have rejected applications this year at a level not seen for a generation” and even lower- and medium-tariff providers have “unusually dropped their offer rate”.

Capacity limits on campuses are a key factor but the effect of the freeze on tuition fees – meaning their value has decreased by almost 30 per cent since 2012 – is also being felt.

This, according to Mr Corver, could have two effects; some universities that can readily attract international students – who are not subject to a fee cap – may choose to rejig cohorts to accept fewer UK students. But other universities may decide their only route to financial security is by boosting places while lowering the cost of teaching each student.

He predicted that the sector might “see both responses and something of redistribution of students across the capacity to hand”.

For Ms Delany, the more prudent approach to offer-making was here to stay because “universities are starting to manoeuvre themselves for what is going to be much greater application pools in future years” and therefore taking gap years and reapplying is a riskier strategy than previously, with many universities having already signalled their intention to make higher offers in 2023-24.

Graeme Atherton, a professor at the University of West London and director of the National Education Opportunities Network, said that students from disadvantaged backgrounds had generally fared well from the system of using teacher-predicted grades during the pandemic and this cycle will be a test to see if this momentum can continue.

Although Ucas has reported the highest levels of students from poorer backgrounds applying this year, these types of students are more likely to have had their education affected by the pandemic due to home-learning difficulties such as lack of study space or internet connectivity. It is feared these students could also suffer the most from increased competition for places in future years.

tom.williams@timeshighereducation.com

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