State school pupils lose out in rush for university places

More than 50% of A-levels taken by privately-educated students get an A

Universities could be forced to turn away disproportionate numbers of state school pupils in the squeeze on university places after private schools cemented their domination of the top A-level grades.

For the first time, more than 50% of A-levels taken by privately educated pupils scored an A compared with 20% of those in state schools, widening the gap and prompting claims that attempts to break the middle-class stranglehold on entry to higher education have failed this year.

The competition for entry to degree courses this autumn is unprecedented after ministers capped student numbers to avoid a budget deficit despite a 10% surge in applications.

Up to 135,000 candidates were still battling to secure a place today – nearly 30,000 more than the same point last year. But the numbers available in clearing, the system used to allocate leftover places, is estimated to have halved to 22,000.

The battle for a place was made more acute by another record rise in A-levels, with a 0.8 percentage point increase in the proportion achieving an A to 26.7% of the total entries. The pass rate rose for the 27th successive year to 97.5%.

Wes Streeting, president of the National Union of Students, said: "I have no doubt that the combination of factors we're seeing of a crunch on places, increased A grades dominated by private schools, and up to 40,000 losing out on the places will have a disproportionate impact on students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

"I have a real fear that when numbers are published later, the number of pupils from state schools will have fallen."

Some universities announced that they were full within hours yesterday. University College London, the London School of Economics, Imperial College London and Bristol closed their applications process immediately. Birmingham University had vacancies on 82 courses this morning but by the evening all but one were full. However, the most intense activity was at universities outside the Russell Group institutions. Birmingham City University said it had taken nearly 1,000 calls since its hotline for students chasing a place opened at 6am. Coventry University had received more than 1,000 calls by the end of the day.

Ucas had received an estimated 15,000 calls by the end of today, with thousands also accessing online advice and more than a million searches on its database of courses. Students were encouraged to keep calling the helplines, but many were frustrated by engaged tones.

Anthony McClaran, chief executive of Ucas, urged students not to give up and said thousands of courses would still be available through clearing today. But he confirmed that more students had been placed after getting their results, suggesting there will be less flexibility for those who miss them and fewer places in clearing.

He told the Guardian: "There is a danger students might think there's no chance. There needs to be counterbalancing – we know tens of thousands of courses still have vacancies."

Brian Cantor, vice-chancellor of York University, said: "We are not accepting as many students as are sufficiently well qualified to get a good education at York because we haven't got the extra places. In a year when jobs are hard to come by it's a real shame. Capping the numbers prevents further widening participation."

Linguists expressed concerns about the decline in students taking French and German, though Spanish entries were up.

Most starkly, the results revealed differences in the performance of pupils in state and private schools. The exam boards published data on the pattern of subjects taken in state and private schools, revealing that while state school entrants dominated A-levels in technology, drama, PR studies and media, private school pupils were more likely to do classics, maths, economics and French, qualifying them for places at the top universities.

The shadow children's secretary, Michael Gove, described the gulf between the school sectors as "shocking". He said: "The fortunate few are pulling ever further away from the rest and this phenomenon appears to be gathering pace rather than slowing down."

The universities minister, David Lammy, defended the government's record on expanding university access after accusations that Labour had abandoned the policy by refusing to lift the cap and allow more people on to degree courses.

"We will do all we can to support Britain's young people, to back them at this time," he said.

"We have an aspiration of 50% that has driven the growth in university numbers. We've got 43% of students opting for university and we can see the demand and appetite is still there. We will have more people at university this year than ever before in our history."


Polly Curtis, education editor

The GuardianTramp

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