The head of the universities admissions service has said this year’s A-level results were “never going to be pain-free”, as students are told to prepare themselves for lower grades and increased competition for university places.
With results published on Thursday, the Ucas chief executive, Clare Marchant, said the government’s policy of reining in grade inflation in order to bring results gradually back to a pre-pandemic level, had been necessary but it was “not easy”.
She was speaking after comments from leading figures in the sector that tens of thousands of students look set for disappointment this year, with 80,000 fewer As and A*s than last year according to one estimate, which could in turn result in 40,000 students or more missing out on their course or university of choice.
Ucas, along with England’s exams regulator, Ofqual, and the Department for Education, have sought to steady nerves before results day amid warnings that university admissions this year will be one of the most competitive in living memory.
Marchant acknowledged the offer rate had gone down, particularly affecting applicants to the most selective universities and on the most popular courses such as medicine and dentistry. Given the changing circumstances, she said universities’ offer-making had been “precise, conservative and cautious”.
It means, however, that many students whose plans have fallen through will be hunting for places via clearing later this week, having to consider different courses at different locations in order to secure their path into higher education. Some UK universities had just a handful or no courses at all available a week before results day.
It is the latest setback for a cohort of pupils whose education has been severely disrupted by Covid-19, with two prolonged periods of school closures and cancellation of their GCSEs.
The government and Ofqual introduced a number of exam adaptations, including advance notice of some topics, designed to mitigate lost learning, but even England’s higher education watchdog, the Office for Students (OfS), said students should be prepared for disappointment this Thursday.
After record results last year, when 44.8% of grades were either A or A* at A-level, this is expected to fall to 35% (up from 25.5% in 2019). While almost one in five (19.1%) grades were A* last year, this year the proportion is expected to decline to 13.5%. Similarly, the number of A* to C grades are expected to go down from 88.5% in 2021 to 82%.
“Ofqual wants to bring the grading down but if you compare that to – certainly what I’ve seen – some schools’ predicted grades, they have accepted that in general that results will go down but not necessarily for them,” John Blake, the OfS director for fair access and participation, told the Telegraph.
“That could lead to a lot of students feeling quite disappointed on the day that their grades don’t match up to the grades that they were expecting. And I think it’s important for people to prepare themselves a bit for that and to acknowledge that.”
Marchant told attendees at a webinar hosted by the Higher Education Policy Institute the good news was that record or near record numbers of students were likely to get into their first choice of university. But she said: “A return to either an intermediary position or, as Ofqual said, a midpoint, was never going to be pain-free.”
She said it would be a busy time for clearing this week. As many as 40% of students are likely to make use of the system to secure last-minute places, and Marchant said there were 28,500 different courses available, including law and psychology.
Marchant also said the years ahead were “not without risk”. Grades have been brought down this year to a midway point between pre-pandemic levels in 2019 and teacher-assessed grades in 2021, but next year’s grades will be brought down further to 2019 levels.
Looking further ahead, she said a growing number of 18-year-olds in the population and an increasing demand for higher education, meant the higher education environment would remain highly competitive.