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18 08, 2018

Some new perspectives on the 2018 A level results: STEM gap remains but decline in foreign languages exaggerated

18 August, 2018|News|0 Comments|

This blog has been Kindly provided to HEPI by Mary Curnock Cook, Senior Advisor, Cairneagle Associates, as well as a HEPI Advisory Board member and a former CEO of UCAS.


Aggregate data on A level results are released by the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ), the umbrella body for the main exam boards in the UK.  In a 49-page pdf file (with no available csv version), results are broken down by subject and by UK country as well as by gender. But like other data sources, such as the excellent data explorer from Education DataLab,, the JCQ data gives us numbers of entries which, without the underlying population data, make it difficult to ascertain the trends in subject preferences.

The JCQ press release mentions a 3.5% fall in the population which is probably an over-estimate.  More carefully curated data to match exactly the school year and month of birth (which is pertinent to the school year of the student) estimate the population drop to be closer to 2.5%.  In this note, we use proportion of total entries to look at trends.  While this won’t account for any increase in the participation rate in A levels, it starts to provide a more useful measure of trends and preferences than simply plotting changes in the numbers of candidates.

Without having the data at individual candidate level, it’s impossible to ascertain the trends in subject combinations which would make interesting reading, especially following the move from AS/A2 to linear structures for many subjects.  The JCQ could and should do much more to analyse the data it hosts from the exam boards – the gruesome pdfs, which have been released in the same prehistoric format for years, are a big frustration for anyone […]

16 08, 2018

Some headlines on university entry from A-Level results day by Mary Curnock Cook

16 August, 2018|Blog|1 Comment|

This guest blog has been kindly provided to HEPI by Mary Curnock Cook, Senior Adviser to Cairneagle, a member of the HEPI Advisory Board and the former Chief Executive of UCAS.

The UCAS data published this morning gives a useful guide to trends in undergraduate entry to higher education – roughly 80% of the 2018 entry cohort is captured so, although it is imperfect, it is meaningful.


For universities the number of students placed is key because each student brings a tuition fee income stream with them.  For politicians, the entry rates are more critical because these show behaviour trends within the (diminishing) population.

The number placed as of today is 1% down at 411,860.  That’s 5,000 fewer students or about £140 million less income for universities over the next three years.  EU and international recruitment has held up rather better than UK recruitment, mainly because of a 2.5% fall in the 18 year old population in the UK this year.  The population fall means over 18,000 fewer people finishing secondary education this year of which some 6,000 might have been expected to apply for university.

Who’s losing out?

In a repeat and perhaps an amplification of last year’s trends, it is the lower-tariff universities that are suffering most.  Lower-tariff universities (think former polytechnics mainly) have 4,000 fewer confirmed students recruited this morning.  Medium-tariff universities are down 1,700 students while the higher-tariff universities (think Russell Group mainly) have managed to increase their numbers by 1,310 against this time last year.  And as the time series from UCAS below shows, higher and medium-tariff universities have managed to soak up most of the growth in student numbers since the cap on recruitment started being lifted from 2012 onwards.

18 year old entry rates

While the […]

14 08, 2018

UK slips behind the US, which takes the number one slot, for educating the world’s leaders

14 August, 2018|News|0 Comments|

The United States has become the country that has educated more serving world leaders than any other, just displacing the UK from the top spot.

Among serving monarchs, presidents and prime ministers who undertook higher education abroad, 58 were educated in the US while 57 were educated in the UK, reversing last year’s positions.

The two English-speaking countries remain some way ahead of other nations. However, France, which remains in third place, has performed more strongly this year: in 2018, 40 world leaders were educated in France, six more than in 2017.
Top countries for educating the world’s leaders


Number of leaders educated, 2018

1. US


2. UK


3. France


4. Russia


5. Australia


6.= Switzerland


6.= Canada


8. Portugal


9. Austria


10.= Egypt, Germany, Lebanon, South Africa, Spain, India, Belgium, Netherlands, Senegal



Nick Hillman, Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), said:
You build up incredible soft power if you educate the leading lights of other countries. In the past, we have been more successful than any other country in attracting the world’s future leaders. But these new figures suggest our position could be slipping.

To ensure this does not become a long-term trend, we need to adopt a bold educational exports strategy, remove students from the main migration target and roll out the red carpet when people come to study here.

One practical way to make all that happen would be to end the Home Office having complete control over student migration and to share it across government departments instead, as they do in other countries.
Tom Huxley, an independent researcher who completed the study for HEPI, said:
These results show that, while Britain’s higher education system remains among the best in the world, it faces unprecedented competition for ambitious students from other countries.

The government must take student numbers out of […]

10 08, 2018

How to land a jumbo jet on a postage stamp

10 August, 2018|Blog|2 Comments|

I have been asked a lot, particularly by journalists, about the vagaries of the university application system – and clearing in particular – this past week. It is a peculiar, difficult and stressful process that can last for months between submitting your UCAS form and having your place confirmed. As I sought to explain in an article in the Guardian earlier this week, however, the main alternative option of having everyone apply after they have their results would likely bring some different challenges.

It has been said many times before that this year’s admissions round is a buyer’s market, meaning applicants are better placed for securing their preferred option than at any point in recent memory. In fact, each year they go on being better placed than the one before (though this could well change in the medium term). That is why, for example, there has been an explosion in the number of unconditional offers.

It is easy to forget how different this is to the past. When I first worked in higher education policy over a decade ago, one of my first tasks was to calculate how many applicants were likely to go without. There were lots of newspaper headlines about the tens of thousands (sometimes hundreds of thousands) of UCAS applicants who would not get a place. Even six years ago, just at the point when fees went up to £9,000, it was said well over 100,000 applicants would fail to get in. It was a seller’s market more than a buyer’s one. As last night’s Radio 4 programme, The Briefing Room, showed, there is a trade-off between the funding system you opt for and the number of places you can afford to fund […]

3 08, 2018

How should we respond to reports of a declining graduate premium?

3 August, 2018|Blog|0 Comments|

HEPI has occasionally published hard-to-find and interesting historic educational documents, such as Anthony Crosland’s 1965 Woolwich speech heralding polytechnics and Ken Baker’s Lancaster speech extolling the virtues of expanding higher education.

Another important but often overlooked historical document is the expansionary education white paper of 1972. It includes a section that relates to today’s discussions about the purposes of higher education and declining graduate premium.
116. The subsequent career patterns of some of those taking degrees or parallel higher education qualifications in future, for example, must be expected to differ significantly from those of their predecessors. The expansion of higher education provision has already reached the point where employers’ requirements for such highly qualified people in the forms of employment they traditionally enter are, in the aggregate, largely being met. These patterns of employment are already changing and will continue to change as employers increasingly take the opportunity to enlarge the areas of work in which more highly educated and qualified recruits can be placed advantageously. Even so, there seems little doubt that the continuing expansion of higher education will more than match the likely expansion of graduate employment opportunities as these are understood today.

117. Opportunities for higher education are not however to be determined primarily by reference to broad estimates of the country’s future need for highly qualified people; although attempts to relate supply to likely demand in certain specialised professions – and, particularly, at the postgraduate stage – will be no less important than before. The Government consider higher education valuable for its contribution to the personal development of those who pursue it; at the same time they value its continued expansion as an investment in the nation’s human talent in a time of […]

1 08, 2018

Why we should all stop claiming the current student loan system will cost more than the old one

1 August, 2018|Blog|0 Comments|

Iain Mansfield, a senior civil servant working on higher education and now an interesting contributor to public debate, has written an article on Wonkhe about influencing policymakers successfully.

There is a huge appetite to know more about this: my own piece on the subject has been more widely read than anything else I have ever written. One point that particularly resonated with people (securing 1,400 retweets) was a point about the limited access civil servants and politicians have to academic output in peer-reviewed journals.

This challenge was one of the factors that once led HEPI to publish a paper proposing a National Licence, which would have provided everyone with a UK IP address access to academic output without charge. Inevitably, it was caricatured as a ‘UKIP’ policy…

It quickly became our most controversial paper ever, and people tied themselves in knots when opposing it – one academic called for the paper to be withdrawn, before withdrawing his call for it to be withdrawn and then withdrawing his withdrawal of the demand for it to be withdrawn. But the paper was an honest attempt to tackle a real problem. Sadly, those who opposed our way of tackling the problem did not have a good answer on how to provide access to previously-published, rather than new, research for policymakers, health workers, teachers, staff in FE etc etc etc.

But I digress. The point that really stood out for me in Iain’s piece was this:
I’ve had people tell me in discussions on destinations of leavers from HE (DLHE) or longitudinal education outcomes (LEO) that going to higher education makes absolutely no difference to a person’s future employment prospects or earnings. Really? Do you really want to say that to the department responsible for […]

26 07, 2018

Mary Curnock Cook: Is it time for a gentlefolks’ agreement among Vice-Chancellors to abandon unconditional offers?

26 July, 2018|News|2 Comments|

Today’s report from UCAS highlights the stratospheric rise of unconditional (U) offers on the university admissions scene.  Since 2013, when the University of Birmingham made the first controversial move, the practice of confirming places for students before they get their exam results has grown exponentially.  According to UCAS, 2018 saw some 68,000 unconditional offers being made, up from less than 3,000 in 2013.  Nearly a quarter of applicants now get at least one U offer.

An earlier report by UCAS in 2016 showed that students with U offers had a small but measurable drop in expected performance at A-Level.  No doubt the promised UCAS report later this year will provide further evidence.

Undoubtedly, schools and parents thoroughly dislike the practice because it skews students’ decisions and takes the pressure off students to study hard up to the line to get the best grades possible. As Laura McInerney points out, it also undermines the concept of preparing and qualifying for higher education.

In the context of rising worry about young people’s mental health, universities defend the practice as a way to relieve exam stress.  They point out that the performance of pupils at A-Level is squarely the responsibility of schools, not universities, and some put in place scholarships to incentivise their applicants to deliver on their predicted grades in spite of the U offer. Importantly, they also point to the legally enshrined autonomy of universities to set their own admissions criteria.

Some refer to the practices of an earlier era when two E grades at A-Level was a standard offer for many universities, including for Oxford and Cambridge (albeit when there was an additional Oxbridge entrance exam). But replacing U offers with very low grade offers would send a much worse […]

26 07, 2018

When is an unconditional offer not an unconditional offer – and other points missed

26 July, 2018|Blog|3 Comments|

Six under-reported points in today’s debate about the sharp rise in unconditional offers for applicants to higher education.

The autonomy of universities over whom to admit is enshrined in primary legislation. This was confirmed in the most recent higher education act, which was passed just over a year ago. This means the room for action on restricting unconditional offers is strictly limited without a change to the law. Those who are calling for something to be done therefore need to explain how this is to happen.
Moving to a system of post-qualification admissions, as exists in other countries, may have some advantages. It presumably would tackle the phenomenon whereby an exam candidate with an unconditional offer takes their foot off the pedal and coasts along, which teachers regularly describe as a problem. But, unless post-qualification admissions were to be accompanied by a minimum entry standard, it wouldn’t automatically tackle the issue of higher education institutions letting people in with lower grades – which seems to be the goal of many critics of the rise in unconditional offers. Universities would still be free to let individuals in with grades below their regular entry standard if they chose to do so.
The rise in unconditional offers is, rightly, being linked to the removal of student number controls. However, one important driver is the falling birthrate 18 years ago (see chart), which means there are just fewer school leavers than for many years. So of course institutions need to fight harder to recruit entrants. The tide will turn again, but not until the early 2020s onwards.
There are different sorts of unconditional offers. Some do have strings attached (so are not really ‘unconditional’ in a pure sense) […]

6 07, 2018

For the future of higher education to be truly global, education must be free for all?

6 July, 2018|Blog|0 Comments|

Earlier this week, I was privileged to take part in the Advance HE Teaching and Learning Conference Annual Debate on ‘This House believes that for the future of higher education to be truly global, education must be free for all’, hosted at Aston University.

As a speaker on the opposition side, it was an opportunity to set out some of the arguments for tuition fees, to the backdrop of the Augar review. In the true traditions of debating, the arguments put forward were necessarily one-sided but persuasive arguments were made on both sides.

Those who disagree with the arguments below are free to comment below. They will be pleased to know we lost the debate.

Thank you for inviting me.

For those who do not know, HEPI is the UK’s only independent think tank and we have done a lot of work with the bodies that have come together as Advance HE and, indeed, we are already working with Advance HE – for example, on our joint Student Academic Experience Survey, which we launched last month.

I want to make three points:

fees can mean a better education;
fees can mean more progress on widening participation; and
fees can mean more autonomy, upon which the success of our higher education sector is built.

Let me begin by accepting that fees are not popular. But we are not here to claim they are popular; we are here to claim they work – especially when backed by income-contingent loans.

A better education

Why do I think fees mean a better education? I went to university in the 1990s, back in the days when we failed penalty shoot outs and just before New Labour did something Margaret Thatcher had never dared do: introduce undergraduate tuition fees.

Blair […]

21 06, 2018

The hard truth about grade inflation: Testing some hypotheses

21 June, 2018|Blog|2 Comments|

This guest blog has been kindly provided by Dr Andrew Hindmarsh, Head of Planning at the University of Nottingham. His responsibilities include providing management information and statistical returns to official bodies. Previously, he was Head of the Undergraduate Admissions Office at the University of Sheffield. He is also the Chair of the Board of a multi-academy trust in the East Midlands.

He oversees the preparation of data for the Complete University Guide tables and any views expressed in this article are those of the Complete University Guide and do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Nottingham.

Accusing universities of ‘grade inflation’ has become a common pastime in political and media circles. What they mean is that the proportions of good degrees awarded have been going up, but it is referred to as grade inflation so that the preferred explanation (ie university perfidy) is built into the term that is used to describe the phenomenon.

However, degree classifications could be changing for a whole of host of reasons, and at the Complete University Guide we decided to test some of them using a dataset of degree classifications we had obtained from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA).

Number of ‘good’ degrees

First, the dataset confirmed that the proportion of graduates obtaining a first-class degree had risen by 10 percentage points in the period 2012/13 to 2016/17. The proportion of graduates obtaining either a First or an Upper Second rose by 7 percentage points.  (NB The dataset is slightly restricted, so the figures for the whole graduating population might be slightly different – see note at end.)

High tariff versus low tariff

However, the changes are very different at different institutions with the biggest increases being 28 percentage points for Firsts and […]