In an interview with the Sunday Times published on his last day as president of Universities UK, Sir Steve Smith said that students who achieve grades of AAB or better will become the “gold dust” of the new system being introduced next year.
The government announced in its White Paper on higher education that students with these grades will be removed from number controls, meaning that universities can compete to recruit as many as they want – but also face losing places to rivals.
The Sunday Times reported that the universities of Kent and Essex are among the institutions planning special deals, including scholarships of £2,000 for students with three As regardless of family income.
Sir Steve, vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter, said: “Universities in the Russell Group and the 1994 Group [of research intensive institutions] which only have 10-15 per cent of students on AAB are going to have some very difficult decisions. They are going to have to work out if they start buying AAB students.
“One of the implications is that those students become like gold dust for their reputation. So you might have an incredibly strong series of incentives.”
As Times Higher Education has reported, the percentage of AAB students varies dramatically between Russell and 94 group institutions.
At the universities of Cambridge and Oxford, for example, 99 per cent of students had AAB or higher in 2009-10, compared to 8 per cent at the University of Essex and 32 per cent at the University of Liverpool.
Meanwhile, The Times reported that some members of the 94 Group, including Durham and Exeter universities, are planning to seek invitations to join the Russell Group.
Wendy Piatt, the Russell Group's director general, said: “We have no plan to expand further, but we would judge any requests by a university to join on its individual merits.”