- This blog was written by Josh Freeman, Policy Manager at HEPI.
- Yesterday we were joined by Clare Marchant, CEO of UCAS, for a webinar to discuss the 2023 exam results: you can find a recording of the webinar here.
On Thursday, university offer holders from England, Wales and Northern Ireland will wake up from their summer slumbers and head to their school or college to collect their exam results. They might expect three things: falling grades, high competition, and to be attending university with more international students than before.
The rapid rise in awarding top grades during the Covid-19 pandemic, followed by an only slightly less precipitous decline, is well-documented. Since the use of more generous centre-assessed grades in 2020 and TAGs in 2021 caused a spike in the number of top grades awarded, Ofqual is attempting to steer a managed return to pre-pandemic grade distributions. Now in Scotland, the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) adopted a “sensitive” response to the same problem. This year, 77.1% received grades A-C in Higher courses (the equivalent to the first year of A Level), a drop from 78.9% in 2022 but still some way off the 2019 rate of 74.8%. In England, there will be no such sensitivity. Ofqual has briefed that 2023 will be the year when the grade distribution returns to pre-pandemic levels.
If Ofqual succeeds, Professor Alan Smithers predicts that there could be up to 100,000 fewer top grades awarded. This uncompromising position is not necessarily worrying, since it has no direct effect on the number of university places available. But there may be logistical challenges. Firstly, 2023 applicants will be competing against those with better average grades from 2022 and before. It is unclear whether, and how, admissions teams will account for the fact that an A in 2023 is worth more than one in 2022. As their grades look worse on paper, this might put the 2023 cohort at a disadvantage.
Secondly, predicted grades may make things messy (as they are in the habit of doing). We do know that predicted grades tend to be pretty constant from year to year, as teachers tend to base their predictions on previous years’ results, and one cohort is usually as capable as another. Combined with a sharp fall in grades, Mark Corver suggests this could result in tens of thousands of students missing their offer. It could be a dramatic results day – and a busy one for those in Clearing.
In the long run, applicants will also have more competition for a university place. Demographic trends – the result of growing birth rates in the 2000s – means the number of 18 year-olds is set to increase every year to 2030. True, the number of university places is also growing, but not always at the same rate. Demographic growth may partly explain why the offer rate – the percentage of applicants who receive an offer – has been lower in recent years. It may also explain why last year saw a record number secure a place through Clearing, though UCAS would attribute that to its new digital tools like “Decline my place”.
Applicants this year may have some respite, however: total applicant figures dipped slightly this year, rather than increased. A close look at the data shows that a large part of the reduction was in the number of applicants aged 21 or older. In response, UCAS Chief Executive Clare Marchant has said a drop in that age group is typical when employment levels are high. But with the number of younger applicants and international students remaining high, the difference is unlikely to be noticed by the 2023 cohort.
More international students
Finally, there is growing evidence that international students are beginning to displace domestic ones. At the HEPI/UCAS webinar last year, Clare Marchant firmly denied that there was any reason to believe international students were taking places that home students would have previously filled.
This year, that claim may be more difficult to sustain. The shift is rooted in university finances. While annual fees for home students in England are capped at £9250, there is no such cap for international students, who are being charged £25,000 a year or more by some universities. With inflation reducing the real value of fees – costing universities £3 billion in the 18 months from August 2021 – they are increasingly forced to turn to international sources of income. A fifth of university income now comes from international students. As universities are also actively recruiting more from disadvantaged and state school backgrounds, it may be students from more affluent backgrounds who find their places constrained the most.
Nevertheless, it may also be that this trend takes time to bite. The proportion of international students has, at 13%, remained “relatively constant”. But this says nothing about variation within the sector – it may be that more prestigious institutions resist expanding total student numbers more than others. Like concerns about growing competition, this problem is only likely to increase in future years.
The ”unluckiest cohort” of all?
All of this seems unfair on this year’s applicants. The class of 2023 had their schooling significantly disrupted by the pandemic, but receive no better grades and must compete in increasingly difficult circumstances.
They should, however, stay hopeful. If it comes true that more students miss their offers, universities may be more willing to overlook near-misses for the sake of filling their lecture halls. Applicants who narrowly miss their offer should therefore call their first choice institution before applying through Clearing. And they should act quickly. For all the reasons above, Clearing has fewer spaces available and they will soon be snapped up. Regardless, they should prepare for the worst case: a results day so exciting it could keep even the sleepiest students awake.