A record number of students have won places on undergraduate courses in the UK this morning (Tuesday 10 August), with an additional 30,000 UK-domiciled applicants securing a university place on results day this year than last year, but widening participation has stalled.
The figures were published by Ucas, the university admissions service, which warned that the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students has grown.
Today, 388,230 students in the UK discovered a university accepted them onto a full-time undergraduate course – 245,330 of them (34.1%) are 18-year-olds collecting A-level and Higher results this morning. Last year, 30.2% of 18-year-olds gained a place on results day.
After around a decade of widening participation progress, albeit slow, it is disappointing to see it stall
– Clare Marchant, Ucas
Including 47,200 international students, a record 435,430 students are now placed on a full-time undergraduate course, up 5% on results day 2020. A record 395,770 of them have a place on their first choice – up 8% from 365,500 in 2020.
As records fell, Ucas chief executive Clare Marchant commended the higher education sector, which had “been flexible with their decisions to accommodate as many students as possible onto their first choice of course”.
The news came as the body representing exam boards revealed record grade inflation.
The Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) revealed that 44.8% of A-level students achieved an A* or A – up from 36.5% in 2020. The figures mean that the proportion of students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland achieving a top grade at A-level has risen by almost 75% since 2019 when conventional examinations were most recently set. Exam boards checked 15% of grades submitted – but altered just 1%. Results in Scotland differed: although a record number did achieve an A grade, the percentage achieving A to C grades in their Highers dropped from 89.3 per cent in 2020 to 87.3 per cent in 2021.
Widening participation progress stalls
Despite the record number of young people entering HE this autumn, the gap between the most advantaged and least advantaged has grown after years of gradual improvement.
Ucas uses POLAR4 to measure improvements in access and participation. Students in Quintile 1 are considered the least advantaged based on the percentage of young people from their neighbourhoods that access HE. Students in Quintile 5 are considered the most advantaged.
A fifth (20.7%) of 18-year-olds in the UK in Quintile 1 found a place this year: they were two-and-a-half times less likely to have done so than 18-year-olds from Quintile 5 (48.4%). The figures are both new records – last year, 18.6% of Quintile 1 and 42.5% of Quintile 5 school-leavers found a place at university on results day.
It means that 26,640 18-year-olds from the least advantaged areas and 82,390 from the most advantaged areas secured a place – up 3,450 (6%) and 12,770 (10%) on last year respectively.
Said Marchant: “After around a decade of widening participation progress, albeit slow, it is disappointing to see it stall, though this should be seen in light of record numbers of students from disadvantaged backgrounds being accepted.
“We know that many young people are looking at all of their options, with over three-quarters of those who haven’t applied through Ucas saying they’re interested in an apprenticeship. Through our trusted, engaging, and timely information and advice, such as our CareerFinder service, we’re helping everyone discover what their next step could be.”
Awarding gap has grown, statistics show
Despite a widening gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students in university admissions, the same disparities were not apparent in A-level grades. Analysis by the Department for Education shows “no notable change in historic disparities between groups of students and types of school this year” compared to previous ones.
However, the percentage of A and A* grades awarded to students in independent schools was higher than it was in sixth form colleges. The increase in these top grades in private schools was more than double that in sixth form colleges. Government data shows that Black students, those on free school meals or living in areas of high deprivation were less likely to achieve the top A or A* grades than their more advantaged peers.
There was a 15.8% increase relative to last year in the proportion of grades at A and A* in academies, compared with 15.2% in independent schools. These figures represent a 5.7 percentage point increase in the proportion of grades at A and A* in academies, compared with a 9.3 percentage point increase in independent schools.
Figures from Ofqual show that black students, those in receipt of free school meal, and candidates from deprived backgrounds were less likely to achieve A and A* grades – the gap between these students and the national average has widened compared to last year by around 1.4 percentage points.
Universities minister Michelle Donelan said: “Despite the challenges of the last 18 months, students will today receive a qualification that carries weight and acts as a passport to wherever they want to go, whether that be to university, or into further education and apprenticeships.”
The race for places on the most popular degree courses will intensify to unprecedented levels amid this year’s steep rise in A and A* grades
– Prof Lee Elliot-Major, University of Exeter
David Robinson, director of post-16 and skills at the Education Policy Institute (EPI), described the increase in top grades as “unsurprising”.
“Limited controls, a lot of flexibility on what could be included towards assessment evidence, and students often being given the benefit of the doubt, have all contributed towards this rise seen today,” said Robinson.
“More of a concern than increases is the fact that some groups of students will have lost out from inconsistencies in grading,” he continued. “But greater still is the problem of pupil learning loss caused by the pandemic, which will have been masked by these higher grades. The focus now needs to be on giving maximum support to students to ensure that they progress into their next destination, whether that’s in education, training or employment.”
“The race for places on the most popular degree courses will intensify to unprecedented levels amid this year’s steep rise in A and A* grades,” said Lee Elliot Major, professor of social mobility at the University of Exeter. “Demand for higher education will increase at a time when jobs are harder to come by. Unless universities up their game, we could see social mobility put back years: our research has shown that poorer pupils have suffered disproportionate learning losses during the pandemic.”
EU students plummet
The slump in EU students continued its five-year trend – but this year, in a dramatic decline, the numbers that gained places at UK universities dropped from 22,430 to 9,820, a drop of 56%. These figures are down from a record in 2016 when universities accepted 26,830 EU students on results day.
A modest increase in non-EU international students will prove small comfort for the HE sector. Overall enrolment on the first day of the 2021 admissions process was 37,390, up from 34,310.
Higher-tariff universities increase intake
While overall enrolment figures are up, higher-tariff universities – like those in the Russell Group – are set to expand their first-year cohorts more than most. Figures from the first day of the admissions process show that higher tariff UK universities accepted 14% more students than last year – intake increased at medium tariff universities by 2% but dropped 2% at lower tariff universities. Higher tariff providers enrolled 21,000 more students than at this point last year – most are 18-year-old school-leavers.
Alistair Jarvis said: “Universities will continue prioritising the health and safety of students while preparing for a much fuller in-person experience this year, and look forward to welcoming students in the autumn.”