Number of students accepted onto UK degree courses falls 2%

Plunge in university places for Class of post-Covid: UCAS reveals number of A-level students heading on to degree courses falls 2% from last year – after up to 80,000 fewer A* and A grades were awarded today

The total number of students accepted onto degree courses in Britain has fallen by 2 per cent on the same point last year – with 425,830 taking up places so far, initial figures from admissions service Ucas revealed today.

Ucas has already said that while it expects record or near-record numbers of students to get onto their first-choice courses this year, the process will not be ‘pain-free’ for all because some students will be left disappointed. 

And A-level pupils face devastation this morning as top grades take the biggest plunge ever registered in the 70-year history of the qualification – with a record 80,000 fewer entries awarded A or A* compared with last year.

Officials have reined in grade inflation by introducing harsher marking for sixth formers across the country, who will pick up their results after becoming the first year group to sit exams since the pandemic began.

The number of students anxiously waiting to see if they have a university place has soared by 40 per cent since 2019, with almost 300,000 still having no idea whether they will get the course of their choice – a record high.

The number of pupils with no offer of a place at all has also increased by 74 per cent in the same period, to just under 28,000, according to new figures from dataHE. The increase has been fuelled by a population boom and a reduction in unconditional offers, making the scramble for places the most competitive ever.

And Chris Hale, interim chief executive of Universities UK, warned anyone thinking of deferring their place that it would ‘continue to be as competitive’ in 2023.

Pupils have spoken of their anxiety about picking up their results. Amy Bostock, 18, said last night: ‘The dread I’m feeling about having to open up that envelope with my results in tomorrow is awful.’

The proportion of A and A* grades awarded this year is predicted to fall from 44.8 per cent to 35 per cent – almost ten percentage points.

The drop has been imposed by officials who are trying to get grading back to pre-pandemic levels.

Grade inflation during the pandemic was caused by exams being cancelled for two years in a row, with generous teachers relied upon to decide marks instead.

The aim is to reduce grades over a two-year period back to 2019 levels, when only a quarter got A and A*.

It means the proportion of top grades this year will be lower than in 2021, but higher than in 2019.

Between 40,000 and 60,000 pupils are predicted to fall short of the grades needed for their chosen course today- with many losing their place and having to find an alternative.

They will be forced to use Clearing – the system which matches unplaced students with left-over course places.

Alan Smithers, professor of education at the University of Buckingham, said: ‘This year will be the biggest ever drop in top grades. A drop of 10 points is very big deal.

‘Teachers and pupils may be over-estimating the grades they’re likely to get. It could be a very difficult day and it’s going to be very competitive.’

Mark Corver of dataHE added: ‘The number of top grades has increased by around 160,000 in the past two years so unwinding this could give a record-setting fall.’

Pupils’ predicted grades will have been based on their teacher-assessed GCSE grades, which were also inflated beyond the norm.

Barnaby Lenon, the Universityu of Buckingham’s Dean of Education, said: ‘These A-level students never took GCSEs so it has been harder to predict their A-level results accurately.

‘Their centre-assessed GCSE grades were quite flattering.’

Yesterday, analysis showed the number of courses at elite Russell Group universities available in Clearing dropped to 22,685 from 23,280 last week.

Liverpool took down more than 500 courses following an ‘administrative blip’, while Birmingham was also showing 10 less.

There were also fears that schools calling exam board AQA about A-level results today face potential delays because of workers strike over pay.

Organisers say 180 workers are walking out, including those in customer services who would normally take calls from heads about remarking and chasing missing papers.

However, AQA have denied that there has been any disruption to its operations.

It came as the Education Secretary said today that the ‘majority’ of students will get their first choice university place, and are not being crowded out by a deferred cohort.

Asked by BBC Breakfast if deferred applications would lead to more competition for university places, James Cleverly said: ‘We should remember that there has been an increase in the number of courses, and as you say the number of 18-year-olds has been increasing, but so has the number of university courses.

‘Predominantly of course, students are competing with the other people that took exams this year. The number of deferments as a percentage of the overall applications is very low, something around 6.5 per cent from memory.

‘So the vast majority of places will be for students who have sat exams this year.’

Mr Cleverly said there had been a ‘tighter set of results than last year’ with the return of exams, but added: ‘We have got to remember that the majority of students will probably be getting into their first choice institution, that is incredibly good news.’

Yesterday, he also said that universities are right to prioritise giving places to poorer pupils.

Mr Cleverly told The Daily Telegraph that he was ‘not uncomfortable’ with universities using pupils’ backgrounds to decide between applicants.

He added that for some students it may be ‘harder’ to get top grades than for those from other schools or backgrounds.

Mr Cleverly added: ‘Every single student collecting their results today should be proud of their achievements.

‘Despite the nerves that people will feel, I want to reassure anyone collecting their results that whatever your grades, there has never been a better range of opportunities available.’

This year’s grades aim to reflect a midway point between 2021 – when pupils were assessed by their teachers – and 2019.

Record numbers of students, including high numbers of disadvantaged students, are still expected to start university in September, the Department for Education said.

The results will be a testament to students’ resilience and hard work, as well as the efforts of their teachers, the Association of Colleges chief executive David Hughes said.

He added: ‘The class of 2022 has faced unprecedented disruption to their education and many have never taken public exams before due to the pandemic.

‘So, their achievements are a testament to their resilience and hard work throughout this period, and to their outstanding teachers and support staff who have helped them to achieve success.’

The school leaders’ union NAHT also paid tribute to pupils for their ‘resilient and tenacious’ approach to meeting the challenges they have faced.

Paul Whiteman, union general secretary, said: ‘They have experienced large amounts of disruption due to Covid throughout their courses and have worked hard with their school’s support to achieve today’s results.

‘For many students receiving results today, these will have been the first formal national exams they have ever taken.’

Russell Hobby, chief executive of Teach First, said the ‘sad truth’ is that those who do not achieve grades that reflect their true potential ‘will be disproportionately from poorer backgrounds’, describing the attainment gap in this country as one that remains ‘stark’.

New T-level results will also be received for the first time by around 1,000 students in England today.

The qualifications, which are broadly equivalent to three A-levels, offer students practical and knowledge-based learning at a school or college and on-the-job experience.

Mr Cleverly assured students that no matter what grades they might get, ‘there has never been a better range of opportunities available’.

He said: ‘Whether going on to one of our world-leading universities, a high-quality apprenticeship, or the world of work, students have exciting options as they prepare to take their next steps.’

Almost 40 per cent of students are thought likely to make use of the clearing system to get a place on a course.

Ucas chief executive Clare Marchant this week said Government departments and regulators are ‘working to make sure that, through all of our social media messaging, that support is around’ for students today.

Childline said its counselling sessions about exam results worries were higher every month since January compared to the same period in 2020/21, with the greatest number taking place in June.

Shaun Friel, the charity’s director, said: ‘Children have had to contend with a huge amount because of the pandemic and it’s no surprise that with exams returning to normal for the first time this year, we’re seeing a rise in anxiety levels.

‘We hear from lots of children who are concerned about their results and it’s really important they know that there is someone they can talk to who will listen to their worries. This could be a teacher, careers adviser, parent, carer or Childline.’

Meanwhile, staff at exam board AQA are taking part in strike action over the next few days and next week when GCSE results are due out.

Unison said the action is planned as part of a long-running dispute regarding pay and fire and rehire threats to staff, but AQA said it had ‘robust contingency plans in place to ensure that industrial action has no effect on results’.

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