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Entry cycles

Mary Curnock Cook suggests what this year’s university admissions reveal about the academic year ahead

Every admissions cycle has a context that can make it seem ‘normal’ or ‘exceptional’, somewhere in between or sometimes even ‘unprecedented’. The latter description was particularly apt for the Covid-ravaged cycles of 2020 and 2021.

When I cast my mind back over the various cycles I oversaw at Ucas, certain years stand out. The first is 2011, the year when there were many fewer deferrals and a rush to get into university before the new £9,000 tuition fee was introduced. The second is 2012, which saw the reduced demand (around 8 per cent) caused by the tuition fee rise coupled with a screeching halt to grade inflation; this left many universities, including those in the higher-tariff segment, with large deficits in their planned recruitment.

Then there were the years of progressively uncapped recruitment for students with A-level grades (and their equivalents) first of AAB+ (2012-13) and then ABB+ (2013-14 and 2014-15), while students with lower grades were still counted against a number control. This period also saw the rise of the Btec in admissions as (mostly) medium- and lower-tariff universities realised that they could beat the number cap with the Btec ABB equivalent grades.

In 2015, student number caps were removed completely, fundamentally changing the nature of recruitment for several years. This, coupled with annual 18-year-old population declines, meant that the old divide between ‘recruiting’ and ‘selecting’ universities almost completely disappeared; nearly every university in the country was ‘recruiting’ for many of their courses, with universities distinguished more by whether their approach prioritised quality or quantity. Many higher-tariff universities that would previously have shuddered to admit it were recruiting hundreds of students in clearing, and often at very modest A-level grades.

In 2020, the 18-year-old school-leaver population started to increase again, although the effects of this were obscured by pandemic-induced grade inflation, which was repeated in 2021.

So what happened in 2022—and what does this tell us about what to expect in 2023?

Cautious approach

Perhaps the standout feature of the 2022 admissions cycle has been the very cautious offer-making strategy of higher-tariff universities, keen to control recruitment after being forced into serious over-recruitment in 2020 and 2021. This created a self-imposed number cap at many higher-tariff institutions, with many of the features of the old student number cap years: fewer offers, more disappointed students, fewer places confirmed with missed grades, and a trickle down of students open to recruitment from medium- and lower-tariff universities.

Looking at recruitment of 18-year-old English students (data from day eight after results day), higher-tariff universities are 12 per cent down on 2021, while medium- and lower-tariff universities are up 7 per cent and 11 per cent respectively.

Five per cent fewer applicants were placed at their firm choice. While this might have felt cruel to many disappointed students, it was still a more favourable cycle overall than in 2019, with 16 per cent more placed at their firm choice than in that year.

Clearing was busy, especially in the first few days after results, with 19,140 students placed by day four (the Monday after results day), compared with just 16,150 last year. However, this was still below the 20,400 placed through clearing by day four in 2019.

Dealing with disappointment

What stands out is the number of applicants with ‘free to be placed in clearing’ status. These are applicants who have not been confirmed at either their firm or insurance choices. On A-level results day, over 39,000 applicants were free to be placed in clearing, the highest number by far in the past 10 years and over 8,000 more than in 2019. By day eight, the gap between this year and 2019 had risen to over 12,000—the ‘disappointment gap’, if you like—affecting students with high GCSE grades acquired during Covid and perhaps over-optimistic predicted grades.

Barring any surprise announcements from a new set of ministers, the coming recruitment and admissions cycle is likely to look similar to this year’s. One big unknown is where the A-level grading will be pitched. Some recent reports seemed to suggest that A-level grades next summer might not go all the way back to 2019 kind of outcomes, but Jo Saxton, the chief regulator of Ofqual, recently said that she could “see no reason to delay the return to pre-pandemic grading standards”. It is also possible that new student loan repayment terms (40 years plus a lower threshold) might slightly depress demand.

More likely is increasing numbers of applicants, given the rising populations of school leavers. More selective courses will again want to deploy cautious offer-making strategies to guard against over-recruitment from unpredictable grading outcomes. This should provide a healthy pool of applications across the sector, but only if advisers, used to years of generous offers, avoid letting students bunch applications in the most competitive universities.

Advice to pass on

Changes in each cycle are subtle and fully understood by only a few practitioners in the sector who have deep knowledge of how admissions really work. These subtleties are generally not well understood by schools, so outreach teams should start early—often this coming term—to get key messages out to those who advise prospective university applicants.

These messages should be as follows:

Spread the five Ucas applications across several options. If students have high predicted grades, they should make sure they have at least two non-Russell Group providers on the list.

Then, treat the insurance choice more seriously than in previous cycles. In the past, it has sometimes been a bet on which university is more likely to admit the student with missed grades. This year, it should require a genuinely lower set of grades, in order to avoid relying on clearing.

Universities may offer accommodation guarantees for students that select them as firm or insurance choices. This is important as several university cities have an undersupply of student accommodation, which can pinch for clearing students.

Parents as well as prospective students will need to understand the admissions landscape.

Finally, bidding high for students’ predicted grades used to be a rational strategy to get an offer followed by a confirmed place on missed grades. Teachers would be well advised to keep their predicted grades within the realms of reality this year.

Mary Curnock Cook is chair of the UPP Foundations Student Futures Commission and a former chief executive of Ucas.