Universities challenged by surge in good A-level grades

A-level grades are out in the United Kingdom, and the results are better than in previous years. But the surge in good grades, with 44.3% of A-level entries awarded A* or A, is presenting challenges for university intakes amid a shortfall in places – an issue that is only going to get more pressing in the years to come.

Over the past two years, exams were postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with grades based on teacher submissions of student grades based on mock exams, coursework and in-class assessments.

Amid some concerns of ‘grade devaluation’, grades were notably higher than in 2020.

“Last year, we saw 36.5% of A-level students achieving top grades – the first year that exams were scrapped. This year has topped that by a long way: 44.8% – that’s almost half of young people achieving top grades in their A-levels,” Sharon Walpole, director of Careermap.co.uk, told the press.

In total, of the more than 750,000 entries by 18-year-olds in England, 88.2% received grades above C, compared to 87.5% in 2020, according to statistics from Ofqual – the UK government’s Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation.

Record numbers of university applicants have secured their first choice, according to Universities UK, which represents 140 universities in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Some 245,330 18-year-olds have been accepted on courses, a 17% increase on last year. The acceptance rate is even higher, at 29%, for higher tariff universities, according to the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, or UCAS.

“There has been unprecedented demand for places this year,” said Dr Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group, which represents 24 of the UK’s leading universities.

The upsurge is partly attributed to the UK’s easing of COVID-19 restrictions this year and the successful roll-out of vaccinations. This has also led to a spike in foreign students, with a record number applying from China, at 28,490, and a 19% increase in applications from India, at 3,200, according to UCAS figures.

The rise in foreign students has offset the drop in applicants from the European Union following Brexit, when the UK officially left the union in 2020. EU applications fell 43% this year to 28,400, attributed to EU students having to pay higher fees since Brexit, above the £9,250 (about US$12,800) typically charged by English universities for domestic students.

There has been a notable uptick this year in students seeking to study healthcare, with a record 20,240 acceptances for nursing courses, and 8,560 acceptances for medicine and dentistry, up 23% on 2020, according to the UK Department of Education.

While such a rise in applications is being lauded, this has, however, led to some courses at universities turning down students “who narrowly missed their offer grades”, said Bradshaw.

The upswing in applicants has come at the same time as the British government has tightened budgets and forced staff cuts at universities.

In July, a 50% cut to arts subjects in higher education was announced, while some 3,000 university staff on temporary contracts have been made redundant since the start of the pandemic, according to the University and College Union.

Office for Students’ funding for teaching per full-time equivalent student has dropped by 19.3% since the academic year 2018-19. “The funding available to universities for teaching has been eroded significantly over time,” said Bradshaw.

Institutions are calling on the government to bolster funding as the number of university applicants is slated to rise from the 750,000 this year to more than a million by 2025.

“To meet additional rising demand on top of the demographic increase in 18-year-olds expected over the next decade, we are asking the government to prioritise long-term sustainable funding for teaching on a per student basis to guarantee quality and [so that] student choice can be maintained,” said Bradshaw.