A-level students are warned they face 'disappointment' this Thursday
15th August 2022

A-level grades crackdown: Students are warned they face ‘disappointment’ when results are announced this week as exam boards tackle spiralling grade inflation – with up to 60,000 at risk of missing out on first choice university

  • School-leavers have been warned to prepare for disappointing A-level grades on results day this Thursday
  • Tens of thousands are expected to lose their university place and then struggle to find a replacement
  • Bright pupils who ‘wouldn’t dream’ of missing their university offers may struggle, according to watchdog
  • Between 40,000 and 60,000 students are expected to fall short of predicted grades due to harsher marking

School-leavers have been warned to prepare for disappointing A-level grades this Thursday – with tens of thousands expected to lose their university place and then struggle to find a replacement.

Bright pupils who ‘wouldn’t dream’ of missing their university offers may struggle because their exam grades will be worse than grades predicted by their teachers, according to watchdog The Office for Students. Between 40,000 and 60,000 students are expected to fall short of predicted grades due to harsher marking this year.

John Blake, director for fair access and participation at the higher education regulator, said it was ‘only fair’ to warn A-level pupils, most of whom are aged 18, about disappointing grades to avoid a ‘shock’ on results day.

As Ofqual aims to reduce grade inflation, Mr Blake said many schools accepted they had to tackle the issue – which grew during the pandemic when exams were cancelled – but have not translated it into predicted grades.

He said: ‘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.

Students react as they share their A-level results with their friends at Taunton School in Somerset on August 10 last year

Students at Brampton Manor Academy in East Ham, East London, on August 10, 2021 as they receive their A-Level results

Speaking to the Daily Telegraph, he continued: ‘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.’

Mr Blake added: ‘Whatever happens, I think there will be a lot of volatility and people need to be prepared for that. And I think it’s only fair to say that to students so that it’s not a shock to them.’

What is expected from the 2022 exam results? 

Students are eagerly awaiting their A-level results this week, having sat exams for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic. Here is all you need to know ahead of results day:

– When are exam results this year?

A-level results are out this Thursday, while GCSEs will follow a week later on August 25.

The results of T-levels – described by the Government as new qualifications helping young people progress on to skilled employment, university or apprenticeships – will also be published for the first time on August 18.

– What is expected?

It is generally accepted grades will take a hit this year, following an exceptional two years for schools and colleges due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Government has said grades are still expected to be higher than in 2019 – the last year GCSE, AS and A level students sat summer exams before the pandemic hit.

Education minister Will Quince said grades are likely to drop this summer compared with last year, and then again in 2023, as part of a transition back to pre-pandemic arrangements.

– Was anything done to try and support students sitting exams for the first time since the pandemic?

The Department for Education said exams would be graded more generously this year ‘providing a safety net for students’.

Students were given some information in advance to help ‘focus their revision’ and exam boards provided advance information for exams in most subjects.

Pupils were given a choice of topics or content in some other GCSE subjects.

Exam boards provided a sheet of formulae and an updated equation sheet for students sitting their GCSE maths, physics and combined science exams.

– So, with grades down, will students struggle to get into the university of their choice?

Some courses and providers will ‘undoubtedly’ be more competitive this year, the chief executive of Ucas said earlier this summer.

Clare Marchant, in a blog published in June, said 49% of teachers had told the admissions service they were less confident that their students would get their first choice of university compared with previous years, while around two in five teachers expected their students to use the clearing process.

Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham, has predicted there could be 80,000 fewer top grades – A* or A – awarded than in 2021, leaving around 40,000 students possibly missing out on their chosen course or university.

In response to Prof Smithers’ report, Ucas said it was predicting a ‘record, or near record, number of 18-year-olds getting their first choice this year’, but that ‘as in any year, some students will be disappointed when they receive their grades’.

– What can students do if their results are not what they had hoped and they do not get accepted to their first choice course or university?

Students can use the clearing process to see what courses or universities might be available to them if they need a plan B.

Ucas said the figures for courses available are ‘dynamic’ as universities and colleges move their courses in and out of clearing in the period ahead of results day on Thursday.

The admissions service has created a series of podcasts to help students prepare for exam results day and said it will have more than 250 people supporting students on its different channels on Thursday. Students can visit www.ucas.com/contactus to find out more.

His comments come as analysis by the Daily Mail shows competition to snap up Clearing courses on A-level results day will be the fiercest it has been in years, with some predicting the worst squeeze in living memory.

Figures reveal the number of last-minute courses available at elite Russell Group universities has halved in just two years.

It means those who fail to achieve the grades needed for their first-choice course are likely to be disappointed again when they try to find an alternative.

Alan Smithers, professor of education at Buckingham University, said: ‘It will be one of the most competitive years, and probably the most competitive year ever.’

And Lee Elliot Major, professor of social mobility at the University of Exeter, warned: ‘If students drop a grade when they get their results, they will have to really fight for places. The guarantees of previous years will no longer be in place.’

Mr Elliot Major said even pupils who achieve high grades will find it harder to secure desirable Clearing courses, warning: ‘High-achieving students will have to hustle for places. For those who miss their grades, it could have big consequences for their futures.’

Teenagers will receive their A-level results on Thursday after sitting their exams in the traditional fashion this year for the first time since the start of the pandemic.

However, up to 60,000 are expected to fall short of predicted grades.

Clearing is a second chance for students to secure a university place, matching them with unfilled degree courses via the Ucas website.

But there will be fewer elite places available, partly because of the record number of 18-year-olds applying this year. Universities are also trying to regain control of numbers after a surge over the last two years.

For this reason, many institutions encouraged thousands of A-level pupils to defer their place last year, so they will be taking up spots this year.

Mr Elliot Major added: ‘There’s a limited number of places and that’s been fuelled by the fact universities over-recruited last year. There’s also a demographic boom in 18-year-olds.’

Yesterday university leaders warned a drive towards recruiting lucrative international students could also be contributing to the squeeze.

While the number of international students at Russell Group institutions has soared, the proportion of UK students being rejected by these universities has risen.

A Daily Mail analysis reveals that at the end of last week, only 2,353 full-time undergraduate degree courses at 17 of the 24 Russell Group universities were being advertised in England through Clearing ahead of results day.

That is a 24 per cent drop in available courses compared with a similar snapshot survey taken five days ahead of A-level results day last year.

In 2021, 3,085 degree courses at 15 top universities had spaces for students in England via Clearing.

The number of top courses in Clearing is 48 per cent down on 2020, when 4,509 were advertised at 17 Russell Group universities a week before A-level results day.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), said of the squeeze: ‘It is for a mix of reasons – such as universities overexpanding in the past couple of years and now wanting to dial it down, A-level grade deflation, more applicants and so on.

‘Some of the pain has already been experienced however, in the sense that these uber-selective universities were tougher when making their offers.

‘In short, there could be more people who feel the university entrance system has sharp edges and who have to reconcile themselves to going to a university that might not have been their first choice when originally filling in their Ucas form.’

Last year, a record 44.8 per cent of entries were graded at A or A*, compared with 38.6 per cent in 2020 and 25.5 per cent in 2019. 

Some 19.1 per cent of entries gained A* grades in 2021, up from 14.4 per cent in 2020 and 7.8 per cent in 2019.

Ofqual has announced this year’s grade boundaries will be roughly set between 2019 pre-pandemic levels and 2021, when teacher assessments were used to set grades.

Ofqual produced this graphic showing the extra support that was available for A-levels and GCSEs this year

Ucas chief executive Clare Marchant (left) and chief regulator of Ofqual, Dr Jo Saxton (right), have sought to reassure pupils

A report, Return to Exams, published by Mr Smithers on Saturday, estimated around 13.5 per cent of entries will be graded A* and 35 per cent A or A*. These figures equate to about 82,500 fewer A* and A grades than last year.

How universities are shutting out UK students 

Top universities are shutting out British students as they look overseas to fill their coffers, it has been warned.

A record number of British teenagers have been rejected by elite universities and it is feared admissions tutors may be taking international students instead.

While UK students only pay fees of £9,250 a year, those from other countries pay more than double – an average of £24,000.

New figures suggest the most selective institutions turned away 39 per cent – or four out of ten – UK candidates who applied this year, the biggest rejection rate ever recorded. This compares to 32 per cent last year and 26 per cent just two years ago.

At the same time, the proportion of entrants to Russell Group universities that pay the higher international level of fees has soared. In 2021 it hit 23 per cent – the highest ever level – approaching one in four places.

The previous year it was just 20 per cent, having steadily climbed over the years from 12 per cent in 2006.

Yesterday university leaders said ‘high tariff’ institutions – those that ask for the best grades such as the Russell Group – are increasingly recruiting for India and China.

Sir Chris Husbands, vice-chancellor at Sheffield Hallam University, told the Sunday Times: ‘All universities are looking really hard at the cost-effectiveness of their admissions.

‘There are high-tariff universities pulling back from the UK market because they can charge higher prices in international markets. There is an urgent need to look at UK student funding.’

Mark Corver, founder of the higher education think tank dataHE and a former head of data at the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas) said: ‘This is the toughest competition for UK students to get a degree place, especially at one of our leading universities, for a generation.

‘Selective universities have not recruited more UK students because they don’t pay as much as overseas students. The gap between UK and international fees is likely to be around £15,000 this year. 

‘That’s getting on for £50,000 of additional income per student over a three-year course. Unable to increase fees for UK students to cover rising costs, many universities feel forced to dedicate an increasing share of places to overseas students just to keep going.’

The government has capped fees for UK students at £9,250 until 2024.Nearly 70 per cent of students at the London School of Economics are now from overseas. At Edinburgh and King’s College London the figure tops 40 per cent while at Manchester University it is 39 per cent.

With a recession looming, some universities say they cannot afford to enrol more UK students. 

There is no set quota for the number of places universities must give to British students. In a small number of subjects, such as medicine and dentistry, the government limits the number of UK students universities can recruit, as places are linked to funding, but for most degree courses universities can enrol as many students as they wish.

The Department for Education said: ‘UK students take up the vast majority of places on university undergraduate courses so it is not right to suggest…. [this factor] has caused a squeeze of places.’

A spokesman for Universities UK said: ‘There are plenty of high-quality courses available for all UK students wanting to go to university this year, with the vast majority expected to get their first choice.’

A Russell Group spokesman said: ‘This will be a competitive year as things start to return to normal. Figures show the number of 18 year olds holding offers at higher-tariff providers is the second-highest ever, significantly up on 2019 and 2020 and pre-pandemic trends.

‘Our universities have grown UK student numbers alongside international numbers, increasing the domestic 18 year old undergraduate intake by 28 per cent over the past two years to ensure students were not disadvantaged by the pandemic, while overseas numbers grew by 3 per cent.’

The report said that if an average of two grades is dropped by each candidate affected, then more than 40,000 ‘will be at risk of losing their preferred place’. But that figure could be as high as 60,000.

The overall university application rate for UK 18-year-olds is at a record high of 44.1 per cent.

But the proportion of applications that have resulted in an offer from high tariff universities, including the Russell Group, has dropped from 60.5 per cent in 2021 to 55.1 per cent this summer, Ucas data shows.

Mark Corver, co-founder of the dataHE consultancy and a former director of analysis and research at Ucas, told the Times Higher Education website that higher-tariff universities ‘have rejected applications this year at a level not seen for a generation’.

And even lower – and medium tariff – institutions which have less stringent entry requirements have ‘unusually dropped their offer rate’.

He told the Daily Mail that students may need to be ‘a bit more flexible on subject or university that in previous years’.

He added: ‘We do not see any signs in the data that these pressures will ease in coming years.

‘Sometimes there are good reasons to try again the next year, but if students are considering waiting another year solely in the hope that the supply/demand balance will shift in their favour they may end up disappointed.’

Ucas chief executive Clare Marchant said: ‘For a student who find themselves without their firm or insurance choice, or if they have changed their mind, there is plenty of choice available.

‘Ucas will help students explore degree courses alongside other opportunities such as degree and higher apprenticeships.’

A Russell Group spokesman said it will be ‘a competitive year’ but universities are ‘working hard to give as many people the opportunity to study with them as they can’.

He added: ‘Despite the increased competition, we’re pleased that Ucas predicts record numbers will get their first choice this year on results days, and there are lots of options available to those who are unplaced or choose to go through Clearing, including at most Russell Group universities.’

As of the time of the Mail’s survey, seven Russell Group universities had no courses in Clearing: Bristol, Cambridge, Durham, Imperial College London, Oxford, the London School of Economics and UCL (University College London).

Glasgow and Leeds had just four courses advertised in Clearing and Birmingham, five.

Oxford and Cambridge never usually enter Clearing.

Bristol University said it had no clearing vacancies for 2022 and Imperial College London said it would ‘not be recruiting through clearing this year’.

UCL said any clearing vacancies will be advertised at 8am on results day but warned that ‘it is unlikely’ to have any.

Durham University also said any vacancies would be advertised on the Ucas site after 8am on Thursday.

In a letter to prospective students, Ms Marchant and chief regulator of Ofqual, Dr Jo Saxton, have sought to reassure them about their results.

They added that it was ‘not meaningful’ to compare this year’s results to the 2021 results, because it was ‘a different form of assessment.’

The letter says: ‘In 2019, when exams last went ahead, around three quarters of UK 18-year-old applicants were placed at their first choice. Come results day this year, UCAS again expects most students will secure their place at their first choice.

‘Universities understood what grades will look like overall this year and took this into account when making offers. It’s not meaningful to compare this year’s results to those in 2021, because it was a different form of assessment.

‘If you don’t get the grades for your first choice, you may still be accepted by your university of choice, for example, if you are a grade lower than your offer.’

City & Guilds, which produces technical qualifications, has urged school leavers to consider alternative routes to university.

It revealed figures showing 40 per cent of pupils want to go to university, but only 29 per cent of UK jobs need a degree level qualification.

It said some students may be taking on ‘unnecessary debt without a clear onward trajectory’ and may be ‘putting their future at risk’.

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