Non-elite universities claw back ground in admissions race

‘Tentative signs’ the worst is over for lower tariff institutions after difficult decade since number controls lifted

August 25, 2022
Source: Alamy

A rebalancing of undergraduate admissions in the UK appears to be under way with non-elite institutions increasing their intakes during clearing.

After three years in which higher tariff institutions hoovered up the rise in 18-year-olds wanting to go to university, the 2022 cycle saw the beginnings of a return to parity with medium and lower tariff options, according to Ucas data.

Mark Corver, co-founder of DataHE and former director of analysis and research at Ucas, said there were “tentative signs” that the worst years are behind the universities that tend to attract students with lower grades.

These institutions used to admit the largest proportion of students overall but have endured a difficult decade since the removal of student number controls and the decline in demand from older students.

But early data from clearing admissions showed them taking a greater share of 18-year-olds than at any point since 2013 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. While their share of international students was also up, their total intakes were down slightly as the number of mature students applying continued to decline. 

The signs of recovery provided a glimmer of hope in an otherwise bleak financial climate that has led to these types of universities deciding to cut courses and jobs over the summer.

Mr Corver said that although it was hard to make comparisons owing to the disrupted admissions cycles during the pandemic, lower tariff providers would be buoyed by their performance so far in key “future-facing markets”.

He said one of the key reasons behind the recovery was the higher demand overall and the decision by some elite universities to limit admissions this year.

“Part of this is worsening economics around teaching UK students, but simple capacity is also a factor,” Mr Corver said.

“We calculate higher tariff providers probably need to cut intakes by 5,000-10,000 to not grow beyond capacity on campus this year, as the very large 2020 and 2021 cohorts feed through.

“In contrast, the more difficult years that some lower tariff providers have had means there is probably the capacity for an intake up to 40,000 larger than last year if every inch of space was put to work and found a willing student.”

He added that the largest ever shift downwards in those achieving the top grades, due to the regulator Ofqual’s decision to attempt to reverse pandemic grade inflation, may be another factor.

“When students got higher grades their aspirations shifted to higher tariff universities,” Mr Corver said. “Compared to last year the lower grades may lead to a broader range of universities [being] in the frame, to the benefit of lower tariff providers.”

The competitive 2022 admissions cycle has reignited a debate about the dominance of Russell Group institutions, with Mary Curnock Cook, a former chief executive of Ucas, calling the group a “hollow brand” in a blog for the Higher Education Policy Institute website. She said many “top” institutions are disregarded because they are not members owing to “plain old-fashioned snobbery of the most pernicious kind”.

Speaking to Times Higher Education, Ms Curnock Cook agreed that other universities appear to be benefiting this year from a “trickle-down effect from the more cautious offer-making” of the higher tariff institutions.

But she said any such rebalancing would only be maintained as long as the elite universities “wish to keep a voluntary limit on their recruitment, or if number controls come back in”.

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Reader's comments (2)

To say "there is probably the capacity for an intake up to 40,000 larger than last year if every inch of space was put to work and found a willing student ” in lower tariff Universities may be correct but this may not be the best choice for prospective "yet to be placed" students or for the institutions involved. The institutions may be in the wrong place, offering the wrong course for the students seeking a place. The really determined students might get in but might not get on and later drop out, having been burdened with substantial debt. Tax payers may end up bearing more of the cost if the low future earnings of these students do not trigger any repayment. Students, be aware of the risks you may be taking and at least consider alternative places and courses to study, such as apprenticeships. There can be substantial overlaps with specific degrees. The Universities accepting the students may need to increase resources to support the "last minute" students so they graduate with a degree.
"hollow brand" - Absolutely agree with that view.


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