Universities and students recalibrate after A-level results

Experts are sifting through the evidence from England’s experiment in suddenly switching back to pre-pandemic exam-based A-level grades, which saw results for tens of thousands of students plunge by a grade per subject in many cases – with both applicants and universities having to recalibrate their expectations.

The decision by Ofqual, England’s exam regulator, was widely anticipated after A-level grades soared during the COVID-19 pandemic when exams were replaced by teacher assessments. This led to many highly selective UK universities having to accept more students as a greater number of applicants than expected met their entry grade requirements.

However, a prediction that international students would squeeze out UK-domiciled school leavers who missed top grades for entry to higher-tariff universities has not yet materialised, despite widespread speculation and headlines about Britons being replaced by “lucrative overseas students” in newspapers like the Financial Times in the run-up to this year’s results day.

Of course, it is still early days in the confirmation and clearing cycle, which includes filling vacancies with available applicants, but on results day (Thursday 17 August 2023) the total number of international students accepted was 51,210. This was a fall of -2.3% from the 52,440 accepted at the same point last year, according to the Universities and Colleges Admissions service (UCAS).

The number of accepted applicants from China was down from 13,180 last year to 11,630 on results day 2023, said UCAS.

The comparative numbers from Hong Kong also fell – 3,420 to 3,050 – but UCAS reported that accepted undergraduate applicants from India were up, from 4,050 to 4,780, on results day.

Most numbers down on last year

Overall, 414,940 applicants of all ages and domiciles gained a place at UK universities or colleges on results day 2023 – down on 425,830 last year.

This was a fall of -2.6%, but it was still more than the 408,960 placed in 2019 – the last year when A-level results were based on exams.

Looking at just UK 18-year-old school leavers, a total of 230,600 were accepted on results day, a decline of -3.1%, from 238,090 in 2022, but again this was up on the 199,370 in 2019 which is probably more useful for comparisons.

As University World News reported last week, the number of UK 18-year-old applicants was down by the end of the main application period on 30 June this year – from 326,190 in 2022 to 319,570 in 2023, despite the number of 18-year-olds in the country on the rise.

Experts blamed this stalled growth in demand for higher education among 18-year-olds on the cost-of-living crisis and lack of suitable student accommodation, coupled with the growing appeal of apprenticeships and increased chance of getting a job straight from leaving school.

The day after A-level results were declared (18 August) there were still 53,700 UK-domiciled 18-year-olds “free to be placed in clearing” because they had missed the grades required to get on a course of their choice, according to UCAS. This was slightly up on the 53,510 at the same point last year.

Clearing matches available course places with available applicants and government ministers were keen to point out there were spots available on 28,000 courses around the country the day after A- level results were declared.

Helpfully, many UK universities lowered their requirements from last year to take account of this year’s grade deflation, with one Russell Group university in the North of England asking for BBC grades for engineering degrees if applicants made that university their firm first choice on the UCAS form. Last year, it wanted at least AAB grades in subjects such as mathematics and science subjects like physics.

International students

Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education Robert Halfon tried to knock on the head what he called “misleading headlines” about international students taking places from British students by pointing out that even in Russell Group universities “home students make up over 75% of undergraduate entrants and the percentage of international students has actually declined in recent years”.

The less than welcoming tone towards international students from ministers like Halfon chimes with the growing anti-foreigner sentiments from the post-Brexit Conservative administration and the continued inclusion of overseas students in the migration figures, which have been steadily rising in recent years despite Home Office promises to slash numbers before the next general election expected next year.

A fall in the number of students from China would not be wholly unexpected as UK universities have been urged “not to put all their eggs in one basket” and to diversify their international student recruitment to minimise the risk of relying on one country for their higher fee-paying foreign students.

Surveys, such as the one carried out by the New Oriental Vision Overseas Consulting Company earlier this year, have also revealed that while the US and UK remain top study destinations for Chinese students, Asian countries are increasingly popular and being considered alongside Australia and Canada.

Vincenzo Raimo, a global higher education specialist and former pro-vice-chancellor at the University of Reading, cautioned not to rely solely on UCAS data to understand what was happening to international undergraduate recruitment to the UK.

He told University World News that around a third of foreign recruits to UK undergraduate programmes were enrolled outside the UCAS system.

Side-stepping UCAS

“These will be a combination of progressions from transnational education (TNE) partnerships, which traditionally are a very important source of Chinese undergraduate students and, in some cases, universities simply side-stepping the UCAS system where they have special arrangements in place with partner agents and direct application routes.”

The success of some of these UK TNE partnerships, which switched from two years of study in China before two years in the UK to four years in China studying for a British university qualification during the COVID-19 pandemic, when travel abroad was impossible, has also demonstrated that it is not necessary to go abroad for a UK qualification.

“I suspect that students on those TNE partnerships will still come to the UK, but perhaps for shorter periods, such as summer schools and, of course, that means making a smaller financial contribution. They may also decide to come to the UK for a one-year master’s degree which they may perceive to be better value for money,” said Raimo.

Dave Amor, a director of the Higher Insights consultancy and former director of market intelligence at INTO University Partnerships, told University World News it was still a bit early to say whether higher-fee-paying foreign students would take more places at UK universities which may have more vacant spots because UK applicants have failed to make the grade.

However, he wondered whether heightened media interest and comments by government ministers “may have made universities a bit cautious for fear of being singled out as one of the unis prioritising international over domestic students”.

He also said some Chinese students had their plans to start at UK universities derailed after Pearson revoked some of its online English-language exam results following cheating suspicions, as was reported in the media last week.

Amor said he had heard some agents recommending that Chinese students switch their study abroad plans to Australia as some ran out of time to find alternative English-language tests for an autumn start date at a UK university. Australia’s academic year starts in January and gives them more time.

Lockdown fallout

Another expert on study mobility from China, Dr Cheryl Y., director of international at the JCA London Fashion Academy which has a partnership with the University of West London, told University World News the experience of lockdown during COVID had made some Chinese young people reluctant to move too far away from their comfort zone, despite the appeal of Russell Group and other highly ranked international universities abroad.

“There is also the impact of the economic slowdown in China and lack of practice in the English language to consider.

“In some cities, such as Dalian in Liaoning province, property prices have dropped to half of pre-pandemic prices. That suggests that more families in China are unable to afford or unwilling to invest in international education for some time,” she said.

A sudden fall in the number of students coming from China could leave some student beds empty in cities like Coventry and Colchester, which have seen considerable investment in student accommodation, suggested Daniel Smith, managing director of the Student Housing Consultancy, which works with developers, operators, investors, universities and industry partners to help them navigate the challenges in the student accommodation sector.

However, he predicted more headlines again this year about the lack of student accommodation in other cities which have not invested in increasing their housing stock despite soaring demand from both domestic and international students, such as Bristol, Durham, York, Glasgow and St Andrews.