University admissions to return to ‘more predictable’ cycle, says UCAS chief

University admissions will return to a “more predictable” cycle this summer after two years of pandemic disruption, the head of the UK’s university entry service has said, as students prepare to receive their A-level results this week.

Clare Marchant, chief executive of UCAS, said in an interview with the Financial Times that a near-record number of students in England and Wales will receive their first choice university place on Thursday when A-level results are announced.

The comments seek to reassure pupils who are bracing for lower marks than last year after formal examinations returned for the first time since the start of the pandemic, and educators sought to tackle the grade inflation of recent years.

The expected reduction in top grades awarded this year has prompted concerns that many young people could miss out on their top choice of institution as a result of the admissions process becoming more competitive.

During lockdown, formal school exams were replaced with teacher assessments, which gave rise to more students gaining top A-C grades. However this year, as exams return, the level of attainment is expected to fall back.

Universities are also expected to admit a lower proportion of applicants this autumn in order to stabilise student numbers after a sharp increase in admissions last year.

The proportion of applications that have resulted in an offer fell to 66.4, down from 72 per cent in 2019, according to UCAS.

Marchant acknowledged “unpredictability” was felt every year by students “because they won’t necessarily get the grades”. However, she described admissions this year as “more precise”, with universities making course decisions “prior to results day”, with many taking a “more conservative” approach and making fewer offers.

“Even if [students have] missed [their offer] by one grade it’s still worthwhile giving the institution a call,” Marchant said.

“We’re expecting the vast majority of students to wake up and have their first choice university or college . . . It will be a record or near record, certainly more than a normal year,” she added.

The entry cycle was back to a “more predictable summer”, she added.

A record number of students applied to university this year, with a near-record number at present holding an offer at an institution requiring the highest grades, according to UCAS.

However, in the most competitive courses, such as medicine and dentistry, the rate of offers fell. About 15.6 per cent of applications received an offer compared with 20.4 per cent in 2021, while for higher-tariff providers, the figure fell from 60.5 per cent last year to 55.1 per cent.

However, some education experts have warned that lower results overall will mean that more students fail to meet the grades required to gain their first-choice offer.

Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham, on Friday said 40,000 students could miss out on their top choice.

He estimated that 35 per cent of candidates would receive an A* or A grade this year, compared with 44.8 per cent of entrants in 2021. His prediction was based on exams regulator Ofqual’s plans to set grade distribution at a midpoint between results from last year and those from 2019.

The Russell Group, an organisation representing the UK’s leading universities, said this admissions round would be “competitive”.

“Our universities will be working hard to give as many people the opportunity to study with them as they can, while maintaining a high-quality experience for students,” it said.

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