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"The Governor View" - A-level results and higher education admissions

This year’s university and college admissions round appears to have been a relatively straightforward affair compared to the previous two years of disruption wrought by the Covid 19 pandemic.

After two summers of teacher-assessed grades, the return to public examinations saw Ofqual set pass marks to rein in results towards 2019 levels. Around 36.4 per cent of A-levels were marked A* or A this summer, compared to 44.8 per cent last year. Just over a quarter of entries (25.4 per cent) were awarded top grades in 2019. Similarly in Scotland, achievement in Highers was lower than in 2021 but still above 2019 levels.

On the day of A-level results, nearly a fifth more 18 year olds in the UK were placed at their firm or insurance choice university compared to 2019. Fears that the dampening down of grades might hit less affluent students hardest seem to have been allayed. Some 46,850 students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds have so far been accepted on to higher education courses, an increase of 3,770 on 2019. The gap between the most and least advantaged has narrowed from 2.36 in 2019 to 2.29 in 2022, and from 2.34 in 2021. 

Russell Group universities had been more cautious when making offers to applicants earlier in the year. An estimated 10 to 20 per cent fewer offers were made to avoid the problems they experienced last year when the bumper crop of qualified applicants resulted in overcrowding, putting huge pressure on accommodation and teaching staff, and an estimated £9 million being paid out across the sector to offer some candidates the option to defer their place.

“We made fewer offers and pretty much didn’t take any near misses at all, with a few exceptions,” said a governor of a Russell Group university. “You had to make your grade or you didn’t get in by-and-large. From that point of view it was a successful round because we met our target. In fact I think we chose to undershoot by about 40.”

The knock-on effect of that caution is a positive one for middle-to-lower tariff universities, according to governors.

“I have been worried since the beginning of the pandemic about predatory activity on the part of the better regarded universities, the Russell Group and so on,” said the governor at a new university in the south of England. “To start with they lowered their requirements and when more and more teenagers were getting top grades, the top universities were taking them all.”

This year’s dampening down of A-level grades and higher tariff universities’ fear of overshooting is likely to mean a more general spread of talent.

“If fewer students get the grades required for Russell Group institutions and go elsewhere, then other universities don’t have to struggle to fill places,” the governor said. “A fall in student numbers causes real financial hardship for some universities. If fewer students are qualifying for the top universities it makes things a bit easier for the others.”

As one governor at a high tariff institution put it: “Because we overshot last year it meant, by definition, somebody undershot”.

According to a governor at a new university in the north of England, the relative stability of admissions this summer was driven by universities being conscious of, and making decisions to mitigate, the problems experienced during the pandemic years.

“I think we’ll see more of an even distribution of students, which is quite welcome after last year,” she said. “Because of the higher grades in 2021, we saw expansion across the most selective universities. This probably meant there was a disparity which presented a different and difficult picture for some university admissions.”

Governors predict that a combination of Ofqual’s pledge to return grade profiles to 2019 levels in 2023 and continued growth in the 18 year old population could take the pressure off admission tutors across all universities next year and going forward.

One governor suggested that at the most selective universities, the continued fee squeeze and rising inflation could prompt further conversations about the optimal mix of home versus international students. Vice chancellors have already warned that international fee-paying students are a much more attractive option in the current climate.

“There have been lots of warnings about the huge impacts that inflation is going to have in terms of real terms cuts in funding,” she said. “I think highly selective institutions are in a place where they can say ‘do we want to continue to expand home student numbers when it might not be financially viable to do so?’. It could mean that we might see slightly less places at highly selective universities for home students – meaning more being placed in medium or lower tariff universities.”

The admissions round at one Russell Group university this year seems to back this up.

“We increased our international student intake at the cost of our home intake, not by a significant degree but in courses where we had sufficient overseas applicants that met the criteria,” said a governor at the university. “We also overshot a bit on our postgraduate taught, which is financially important for many universities.”

From a governance perspective, boards will need to consider the purpose and approach to international student recruitment, alongside that for home students, in line with institutional strategy and current needs. Decisions taken by universities at the top end of the tariff range can have implications for the whole sector, so accurate and insightful information and intelligence about the bigger picture is vital.

Governors need to be conscious and aware of the extent to which the behaviour of the top universities might or might not impact on them,” said the governor of a post-1992 university.

He points to a policy at his own institution to raise entry requirements in order to improve league table positions and generally boost academic reputation.

“That works if we can manage to attract high attaining people - but that can depend on how much of that talent is hoovered up by higher ranking institutions,” he said. “It’s very much a conundrum. It also has widening participation implications, given that less good grades are generally attained by people who went to lower performing schools in more challenging areas.”

In the longer term, governors have concerns about the possible implications for admissions of the new B3 conditions from the Office for Students which will set minimum thresholds in continuation, completion and graduate outcomes.

The OfS has recently published a raft of documents on the B3 conditions, including an analysis of responses to the consultation which found almost three quarters of respondents disagreed with the proposed timing of implementation. Almost two thirds also disagreed with the approach to constructing the student outcomes indicators and almost half disagreed with the setting numerical thresholds. Conversely, there was strong support for considering the context of an individual provider when assessing compliance with condition B3.

It has also published a revised condition of registration on B3 which will come into force on 3 October. Shortly before this, the OfS will publish its decisions on the actual minimum thresholds, which will not be any higher than the proposals already set out, but could be lower. 

Governors say they are already “very across the data” on where courses at their institutions may fall foul of the numerical thresholds proposed so far.

As one governor points out, one of the ways to change outcomes is to look at the inputs - that is, the nature of the intake.

“On paper, outcomes would improve if you took fewer students from disadvantaged backgrounds because they have a greater journey to go on to get to the same place as those from more affluent backgrounds,” she said. 

While no university wants to be seen cutting back on offering places to students from diverse backgrounds, the new system could potentially be a disincentive to take large number of disadvantaged undergraduates.

“The new outcome thresholds are likely to play into admissions in the longer term,” said one governor. “Introducing the measures without any benchmarking is a terrible idea. Everybody should know there is a very direct relationship between inputs and outcomes. Even at Cambridge, when I last looked, there was a higher dropout rate, albeit a very low one, among students who came in with less good A-levels; it is a cast iron relationship. This policy runs the risk of discouraging institutions from taking such great numbers of these students.”

At the very least, numerical thresholds are in opposition to widening participation, governors have warned. How this might show itself at the level of admissions remains to be seen but universities want a wider conversation about how the OfS regards outputs and inputs and how the two elements interact.

The regulator has made it clear that it wants institutions to improve courses, not axe provision. However one governor dismisses this as unrealistic.

“It’s nonsense saying ‘we don’t want universities to cut courses, we want them to improve quality’,” he argues. “Of course rather than axe the course, we would like to provide more support to struggling students, better staff to student ratios, better mental health provision, more time and resources to forge links with industry, but all those cost money. It’s unrealistic to demand we do more of all this at a time when inflation is rising and fees are worth less.”

He and other governors point out that if swathes of courses fall foul of B3 numerical thresholds resulting in many or some being withdrawn, the number of degree places could drop while the volume of 18 year old school leavers is still on an upward trajectory.

What seems clear from this summer’s admissions round is that the popularity of university as a destination has far from waned.

As one governor put it: “For the last 30 years we’ve been hearing that students will want to do apprenticeships or take another route to avoid student debt but there’s absolutely no sign that going to university is losing its gloss.”

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