University applicants are in the driving seat for a confirmation and clearing period that threatens to leave institutions facing unprecedented uncertainty.
With the lifting of student number controls in England for 2015-16, many higher education institutions are believed to be looking to increase their undergraduate population. But they face a pool of domestic applicants that is not expanding significantly and is predicted to shrink in coming years.
As a result, sector observers predict, universities wishing to grow are likely to accept students who fall just short of their predicted grades and to make more places available via clearing.
Gains at some universities could mean pain for others. Institutions that struggle to hit recruitment targets as students are lured elsewhere may find that they, in turn, have to lower their entry requirements to fill places.
Several institutions, including the University of Sheffield, have allowed students to register their interest in clearing before the release of A-level results on 13 August, in a sign of increasing competition for the students with higher grades.
Recognition that the number of 18-year-old home applicants is likely to decline in coming years is expected to increase pressure on universities, and to place more power in the hands of applicants.
Matthew Andrews, the academic registrar of Oxford Brookes University, said that would-be undergraduates were “in a strong position” when it came to securing places.
“There are no doubt institutions that are taking the unprecedented opportunity to expand their numbers as they see fit, and that has a ripple effect through the sector,” he said. “There may be some institutions seeking to recruit students more aggressively than they have in the past and being more willing to accept students who miss offers than in the past.”
That universities were able to admit students based on a candidate’s individual ability and the institution’s ability to accommodate them, rather than being limited by a numbers cap, meant that admissions staff faced a “certain amount of unpredictability”, Mr Andrews said.
“You will see some institutions achieve expectations and some a bit frustrated,” he predicted.
Mike Nicholson, director of student recruitment and admissions at the University of Bath, said that demographic trends were not the only factors likely to drive institutions to make increased use of clearing.
Institutions facing significant funding cuts because of the research excellence framework results and reductions in government support may also recruit more aggressively to give themselves “a bit of a cushion” in financial terms, he said.
Many in the sector expect universities to recruit more students from the European Union, and lower-tariff institutions are expected to draw more heavily on applicants with vocational BTEC qualifications.
The scrapping of maintenance grants from September 2016 and their replacement with loans is predicted to deter students from taking a gap year and to enrol this September instead, following a pattern seen in the last year before the introduction of £9,000 tuition fees.
And while the general demographic trend is towards fewer UK-domiciled applicants, a population blip that many in the sector see as directly linked to a contraceptive pill scare in the mid-1990s has resulted in about 4,000 additional applicants this year. About a third to a half of these are expected to have A-level grades of ABB.
Institutions might therefore look to boost the size of their undergraduate population this year, aware that it might not be so straightforward in coming years.
Data to be published by Ucas on 13 August after the release of exam results are expected to show that institutions made a record number of offers this year.
Mary Curnock Cook, the chief executive of Ucas, said that choice for all students “has increased this year”.
“We think there is relatively little unmet demand this cycle, so the lifting of the cap will probably have less impact on the sector as a whole, but it gives more autonomy to individual universities to prioritise scale or pursue quality,” she said.