Students are missing out on offers for popular courses as UK universities fear a repeat of last year’s pandemic admissions boom, with some making between 10% and 20% fewer offers to avoid potential overcrowding.
Some schools have reported students expecting three As failing to receive a single offer this year.
University admissions officers say they have reined in the number of offers to avoid being caught out by another year of bumper A-level results awarded by teacher assessment, after last year’s surge in admissions left them with less space to take on more new students.
University leaders who spoke to the Guardian said they would struggle to accommodate a second successive year of record growth in student enrolments, while uncertainty about A-level grades has forced them to be more cautious.
Charlie Jeffery, the vice-chancellor of the University of York, said higher application numbers meant the university’s ratio of offers to applicants needed to shrink.
“There is unpredictability. We don’t know how teacher-assessed grades will work out compared to last year, which was a strange year compared to normal. We’ve said we’ll honour our offers – that could run into space constraints in some areas but not generally,” Jeffrey said.
Sixth-formers apply for university courses on the basis of grades predicted by their teachers, and universities usually make offers specifying the minimum grades they need to achieve. But last year the scrapping of exams and the use of teacher assessment to set grades led to far more students meeting their offers as 38% of entries were awarded As or better.
This year universities are also faced with 31,000 extra 18-year-old applicants, owing to an increase in the number of children born in the early 2000s and more school-leavers opting to study at university to avoid the post-pandemic jobs market.
Oxford is said to have cut back on its offers by about 10% compared with last year. Other larger Russell Group universities have used consultants to model their admissions, based on different rates of grade inflation, and have lowered their offer rates by up to 20% for their most popular courses.
Hamid Patel, the chief executive of the Star academy trust that runs secondary schools across England, said universities should repeat their efforts of last year to avoid talented students missing out on places they deserve.
“Ensuring that young people don’t suffer the compounded disadvantage of Covid disruption, the uncertainty of teacher-assessed grades and the potential loss of a place on the university course of their choice must be the national priority for the sector,” Patel said.
Bella Malins, the director of admissions at UCL, where undergraduate applications have risen 16% this year, said her team “had to think very carefully” about offer numbers. UCL combined data from 2017-19 with data from last year’s cycle, opting for “a more cautious approach” somewhere in between the two.
“If you run a model based on that data it means you make fewer offers this year. But with all the unknowns in the system this year we’re worried we don’t have a reliable model for what’s going to happen,” Malins said.
The picture is further complicated by “a big pool” of applicants who opted to defer last year, since UCL still does not know whether they will take up their places in the autumn – especially those applying from abroad, Malins said.
One senior admissions officer said some universities that over-recruited last year had “jammed everyone in like chicken coops” and would be anxious to avoid any risk of repeating the Covid outbreaks of last year.
He predicted that competitive universities that were more circumspect in their offer-making may “gorge themselves on students over the summer as they did last year” to fill their remaining spots, potentially including those abandoned by international students if travel restrictions remain.
“There will be some very good offers indeed in clearing if you have your wits about you,” he said.
Mark Corver, an admissions expert who runs DataHE, said there were unprecedented levels of uncertainty over grades and offers. “If grades do go up by a similar amount again then perhaps half of young A-level applicants might get ABB or better, compared to around one-third pre-pandemic,” he said.
“It is far from clear whether they can all fit into the universities those higher grades would normally secure entry to. Some universities have already cut down who they made offers to, others might be forced to be harsher on borderline decisions than they would like when results come out.”
Corver said many students might only secure their places in August, similar to last year when UK governments made 11th-hour appeals for universities to take more students.
The uncertainty may not end this year – the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, told MPs that exam “adjustments and mitigations” could be expected for years to come, saying it wasn’t possible to “immediately be switching back to the same situation as it was in 2019”.