UK universities accepting more students with low grades

Latest Ucas figures likely to fuel criticism of system

December 13, 2018
College students receiving exam results
Source: Alamy

The proportion of UK students being accepted on to university courses with lower school-leaving grades is at one of its highest rates ever, according to a report from the country’s admissions body.

Data released by Ucas in its End of Cycle Report show that 84 per cent of applicants who achieved grades equivalent to CCC at A level, or lower, gained a higher education place this year, up 5 percentage points since 2013. For those with A-level points equivalent to DDD, the acceptance rate tipped past 80 per cent.

There is a similar trend for applicants taking other qualifications such as BTECs: acceptance rates for students who received three BTEC passes have risen from below 50 per cent in 2013 to 70 per cent this year.

The figures follow controversy over the ballooning use of unconditional offers – where students are guaranteed a place whatever grades they achieve in exams – which a separate Ucas analysis released last month showed was now at a record level.

That analysis also suggested that unconditional offers were being made at increasing rates to those with lower predicted grades, while there was also further evidence that those holding such an offer were more likely to miss their forecast grade profile.

According to the latest Ucas report, the share of applicants overall who missed their predicted A levels by three or more grades has gone up 3.3 percentage points since 2017, and 11.5 percentage points since 2013.

And placed applicants with lower grade profiles have, on average, a larger difference between their achieved and predicted grades, the figures show.

All the data are likely to be seized on by critics of the current system, with some believing that universities that are under pressure to fill places and maintain tuition fee income are accepting too many students with lower grades.

Clare Marchant, Ucas’ chief executive, said that while many applicants were accepted on the strength of factors such as interviews or personal statements, universities “must be mindful of accepting applicants with lower grades” and such students “must be appropriately supported during their studies, so they can flourish on their chosen course”.

She added that Ucas was also “working with schools and universities to improve the accuracy of predicted grades, exploring the different ways teachers make predictions, and how they are used by admissions teams when making offers”, with a “good practice guide” due to be published in the new year.

Elsewhere, a separate chapter of the report reveals that although the proportion of UK 18-year-olds entering higher education continues to rise overall, there has been a fall in the entry rate for some regions for the first time since tuition fees rose.

In the east of England, the north-east, and Yorkshire and the Humber there was a drop in the share of 18-year-olds entering higher education of between 0.1 and 0.7 percentage points compared with last year. “These decreases come after five years of consistent entry rate increases for every region of England from 2012 to 2017,” the report says.

Meanwhile, the figures show that Wales is the only part of the UK were fewer applicants were accepted on to courses in 2018 compared with last year, with a fall of 5.7 per cent.

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Reader's comments (1)

Lower entry requirements are not necessarily the problem given the limitations of A level grades predicting performance. The central issue is the difficulty of failing students at the end of their first year at University when they have failed to demonstrate their academic potential. The requirement to sustain 'recruitment and retention' under the market model must take the major responsibility for this situation of inappropriate student retention, as well as undermining academic standards in assessments and degree awards.