Universities demand urgent clarity over student places amid A-level changes

Universities are calling for urgent clarity from the Government after it announced that students in England would be able to receive A-level grades based on their teachers’ estimates.

Students face a scramble to secure a place at their first-choice university after the Government’s U-turn came four days after exam results were released to students in England, Northern Ireland and Wales.

Leading universities have warned that students who now have higher grades amid the policy change could still be asked to defer their place if there is no space left on their preferred course.

In some courses, such as medicine and dentistry, institutions may not be able to admit students this year.

A statement from Newcastle University – from vice-chancellor Professor Chris Day and deputy vice-chancellor Professor Julie Sanders – said it was working to accept all students who meet their offer.

It added: “We recognise, however, that some programmes have an externally-determined cap where numbers are tightly restricted because of space or specialist facilities. This is particularly the case for clinical subjects such as medicine and dentistry.

“We are therefore seeking clarity from the Government and relevant agencies about ensuring as many students as possible can be accepted to their first-choice university. Where this is not possible, we will guarantee a deferred place for next year.”

The Westminster Government’s U-turn in England brings the nation into line with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which will allow students to use their school assessment grades if they are higher.

Queen’s University Belfast said it is seeking “clarity as a matter of urgency” on a number of issues amid the U-turn – including whether the quotas for medicine and dentistry courses will be adjusted.

A spokeswoman said: “Any applicants to quota-controlled courses who meet the conditions of their offer but cannot be allocated a place for the forthcoming academic year will be provided an unconditional offer for the 2021-22 academic year.”

The Russell Group institution added: “It should be noted that the university has genuine capacity restrictions in terms of teaching space, teaching staff and accommodation that have to be taken into account in order to protect the educational integrity for all of our students.

“These issues are particularly complex this year due to the need to preserve social distancing and keep our staff and students safe. It is therefore imperative that the university receives clarity on the provision of revised results and, the support that will be provided by Government as soon as possible.”

Dr Greg Walker, chief executive of the MillionPlus group of universities, has called on the Government to make sure that BTec students and mature learners are not “squeezed out” following the changes.

“While much of the attention is paid to A-level students, we must ensure that other learners and applicants are not forgotten,” he said.

“These include BTec and other applied general students whose grades may now be delayed for a significant period to rightly ensure they will be on a par with A-level candidates.”

He added that mature learners – who usually apply to university later in the Ucas cycle – could also be affected by a surge in interest from A-level pupils.

“Both the Government and universities should ensure that these applicants don’t get squeezed out in these unprecedented circumstances,” Dr Walker said.

The universities group has called on the Government to give financial support to universities and the NHS to ensure capacity issues for student places on health programmes can be met.

Universities in England had only been allowed to recruit 5% more UK students than their targets this year to prevent institutions from over-recruiting to make up for lost revenue as a result of Covid-19.

But the Government announced on Monday that it will lift this temporary cap on student numbers.

Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union, warned that removing the cap could mean that certain universities “hoover up students, hitting the finances of other institutions”.

She added: “And there has been no word from Government about how universities will accommodate any increase in student numbers safely.

“It now needs to provide substantial financial support to the sector so that universities can protect all jobs, safely welcome students and continue to provide world-leading teaching and research.”

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson told BBC Breakfast on Tuesday: “We recognise some of the real challenges that universities face. We know that there’s a clear expectation that is on universities for them to welcome in so many youngsters who have achieved those grades.”

The minister – who last month vowed to tear up the target to send 50% of young people into higher education – said: “We’re going to have a record year of the number of people who are going to university and we’ll work with the sector to ensure they have … capacity.”