Low-tariff universities’ intake could be ‘reduced to a trickle’, IFS warns

The Institute for Fiscal Studies warned the A-level grading crisis would have repercussions for universities for years to come

Low-tariff universities could see their 2020 intake “reduced to a trickle” as A-level upgrades increase demand for top universities, an influential thinktank has warned.

In a briefing note today, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) warned that the U-turn on A-level grades would “have repercussions for universities and students, now and in the coming years”.

Although the Department for Education (DfE) has removed its cap on undergraduate recruitment, there are fears this year’s admissions cycle has already been dangerously destabilised.

According to the DfE’s own plan from June, the student cap was introduced “to ensure a fair, structured distribution of students across providers and will play an essential role in the stabilisation of the admissions system and the financial sustainability of providers.”

Now the cap has been abandoned, the general secretary of the University and College Union, Dr Jo Grady, warned “certain universities can hoover up students, hitting the finances of other institutions”.

The IFS said: “While the top universities could be awash with students who have now met their offers, many lower-ranked universities may have the opposite problem.

“While these institutions can usually count on a steady stream of students who have missed their offers elsewhere, this could be reduced to a trickle this year.

“In addition, many students may try to get out of their newly confirmed places as they realise they could get in somewhere better (although capacity constraints at top universities may limit the opportunities for this).”

Low-tariff universities might be persuaded to recruit first-time applicants to plug a hole in recruitment but doing so would fill lecture theatres with students “underprepared for their courses”, the thinktank suggested.

The allocation of places should not have happened immediately – the government should have released the results in advance and allowed an appeals process on grades before allowing universities to finalise places
Institute for Fiscal Studies

Exactly how many students now have the grades to apply to higher education is unclear, but last month Ofqual revealed that if all students were given final grades based solely on CAGs, overall A-level results for England at B and above would be up by 13 percentage points compared with 2019.

At least 20,000 students were rejected by their firm-choice university because their adjusted grades were lower than their teacher predictions. These students – plus tens of thousands of others released to clearing ­– may now have the grades needed to go to their first-choice university.

Universities may be forced to rely on more online tuition next year in order to meet the demands of so many extra students, and some providers may try to encourage students to defer their study until September 2021. It was confirmed today that Durham University is offering bursaries of unspecified value to students who defer.

The thinktank accused the government of overseeing a disaster that was “entirely avoidable”.

“The government should not have had to rely on shocked 18-year-olds on results day to realise there was a problem. And the allocation of places should not have happened immediately – the government should have released the results in advance and allowed an appeals process on grades before allowing universities to finalise places,” the briefing note added.


Read more: Student number cap axed: DfE maintains policy was ‘not a waste of time’

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