Tens of thousands of students who receive their A-level results on Thursday will face a last-minute scramble for places at British universities, with many warning that competition will be fierce and places on the most popular courses hard to come by.
On the eve of results day for A-levelsBTecs and new state T levels, university admissions offices have reported a surge in interest from students seeking places through clearing, a process which matches students without a place with unfilled courses.
In what is expected to be a turbulent year for admissions, A-level results in England, Wales and Northern Ireland a sharp drop is expected after the government stepped in to curb grade inflation over the past two years for teachers.
The first cohort will sit down A-levels Without GCSEs, which have been canceled due to the pandemic, the average is expected to be better than in 2019, when the exams were last held. But grades are likely to be significantly lower than last year, when almost 45% of all A-levels were graded at A or A*.
Schools that have benefited from the biggest rise in grades during the pandemic are likely to face the steepest declines, including independent schools, where the share of top grades rose by nine percentage points to 70%, compared with six percentage points elsewhere.
Headteachers in the public sector – who got an early look at their results, which went to schools on Wednesday – were cautiously optimistic, reporting few surprises and in some cases better-than-expected results. However, there remains uncertainty around university places with greater demand from the larger cohort and conservative offers from leading institutions.
Analysis by the Lib Dems suggested 75,000 A-level entries would be downgraded from A and A* due to the change in grade boundaries. The research, based on a simplified version of the exam boards’ grading process, which sets a hard midpoint between 2021 and the pre-pandemic grade, shows that some subjects may be hit harder than others.
Maths, sociology, law, English and business studies had the smallest decline in A and A* grades, while music, drama, Spanish, performing arts and PE saw the biggest. There has been a broad trend towards humanities subjects that are more affected by shifting class boundaries.
Mark Korver, founder of dataHE, which advises universities on admissions, said he expected the “gap between expectations and outcomes could be very large this year”, given that the current cohort had seen their slightly older peers “enter selective universities in record numbers.
“It would be foolish for them to envisage such a future for themselves, but it is unlikely to happen,” he said. He added that this year’s admissions cycle will look like a step back, closer to 2010-12 with “limited supply” and the reversal of “a decade of significant increases in student choice.”
University admissions Ucas expects the “majority” of students to get a place at their first university, but the situation on the ground remains volatile.
Ella Kirkbride, head of admissions at the University of Hull, said: “We expect demand for places through the release to be high. This is already reflected in the number of people signing up for our clearing updates – which has increased by 228%.”
Loughborough, Hull, Northumbria, De Montfort and Nottingham Trent universities all reported increased interest and inquiries from students to transfer to another course.
Nick Hudson, chief executive of Ormiston Academies Trust, hoped most of his students would get the places they were aiming for. “We are seeing strong, above-average results achieved in 2019 and consistent with 2020 when exams were not taken, and this applies to all students, including high performers and those at a disadvantage position”.
Higher education insiders say there is enough capacity across the sector as a whole to offset limited supply at the most selective universities, with places at lower-ranked institutions, many of which have ambitious growth plans, and places vacated by falling part-time and mature students.
They are also warning students unhappy with their offers to think twice before deferring and re-applying next year, warning that a further increase in the number of 18-year-olds in the UK next year means applications are likely to be even higher, and competition is greater.