December 2012


  • New schools of thought
    They are a key plank of the government’s strategy to create a ‘self-improving system’, so 18 months from their launch, how are teaching schools shaping up? Nick Bannister reports. More
  • High Hopes
    A programme providing bespoke support for the most vulnerable pupils with special needs and their families has had remarkable results, including reducing the number of children designated SEN. Dorothy Lepkowska reports. More
  • Knock on effect
    Changes to government rules on how many students and of what calibre universities can recruit present a fresh challenge for school and college career departments, says Steve McArdle. More
  • Global Gains
    Working with a school overseas does more than help to create global citizens. Growing evidence shows that it can contribute to pupils’ academic motivation and attainment, say James Love and Claire Kennedy. More
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Changes to government rules on how many students and of what calibre universities can recruit present a fresh challenge for school and college career departments, says Steve McArdle.

The big story emerging from the August A level results this year was meant to be the number of students losing out on university places in England due to the move from ABB to AAB offers. We now know that the offer changes did not have an impact on the scale expected. And, in any case, any story there was overshadowed by the GCSE fiasco.

There are a number of reasons why the effect was not felt as strongly this year, but I believe it will have an impact on students in 2013 and beyond – and this will have a knock-on effect on the advice that schools and colleges give to their A level students.

Historically, the number of places available on HE courses in England depended on the quota assigned by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), which was set according to what the government decided we need from our graduate population – that is, the subjects the government wants people to study for the benefit of the country. T This did not change with the introduction of partial tuition fees under the previous government.

However, now that students are liable for all of their tuition and maintenance costs, the picture is different. There are still controls on overall student numbers, but other constraints on recruitment have been relaxed to some extent.

(And the Treasury still pays up front, our economy still needs graduates in some areas, and the value of different degrees is not yet clear enough for students to make informed investment choices.)

Student Number Controls (SNCs) are a key part of the government’s plan to create a market in higher education. Previously, this meant that a set number of funded places, split between universities and colleges in England, was available for learners. For the 2012 entry, the government allowed for the open recruitment of ‘higher-scoring students’ – that meant those with AAB+ or equivalent – who would be exempt from SNCs and would play the role of consumers.

Admission numbers of ‘lower-scoring students’ (ABB or lower), or those whose qualifications did not fit the exemption conditions, would be controlled by the HEFCE. This group is called ‘the core’ and over-recruitment within the core carries fines.

Ability to expand

The idea was that AAB+ students would be admitted by the higherranking higher education institutions (HEIs), which could compete for them and so be able to expand. Less attractive HEIs could attract students with lower-priced tuition.

However, since the market that variable tuition fees was supposed to create did not really materialise (almost everyone has gone for about £9,000 regardless of where they are in the league tables), the market process has been boosted by shrinking the number of places in the core and reallocating those places to cheaper alternatives – ‘the margin’. In future, continued shrinking of the core and redistribution to the margin is planned in order to force those HEIs unable to attract high-scoring students to cut costs.

In practice, this means that university admissions teams now have to juggle two sets of student recruits and have to meet two sets of targets. The life of an admissions tutor was already complicated enough. There are:

  • Some unconditional places confi dently taken by gap year applicants already holding results
  • Conditional offers firmly accepted (CF) by applicants who will almost certainly come if they get the results
  • An unknown number of applicants holding a conditional place as insurance (CI) who will come if they miss the grades for their firm choice but meet the CI offer

Once these commitments are met then near-miss applicants, either CF or CI, can be taken to fill up the courses, accommodation and so on.

The first sign in schools of this change was an increase in offers last year at AAB+ for financial security for the universities. As a result, students who had expected a mix of AAB and lower offers were forced to hold both CF and CI places at AAB and hope for the best. Subsequently, we saw a huge increase in acceptances of near (and not so near) miss candidates.

However, 2012’s A level marking defl ation (as a result of the application of the comparable outcomes process) meant that there were 10,300 fewer AAB+ students than expected – a reduction of 15 per cent in those who could be recruited freely because they were exempt from SNCs.

Another outcome was that some students getting ABB missed out because of SNCs – that is, universities didn’t have enough places in the ‘core’ to accept them without risking a penalty. Eventually 1,000 more students were placed through clearing than in 2011.

Overall, 54,000 fewer students were admitted to HEIs this year than was the case last year. Because fees were going up, very few applicants from 2011 took a gap year to return this autumn. In addition, around 23,000 students have deferred to take a gap year this year with the intention to arrive at university in 2013. This still leaves a drop of 31,000 students in 2012 compared to expected numbers.

Under-recruitment is across the sector – including the Russell Group (association of 24 British public research universities), where more than 10,000 places were unfilled.

When the university sector is down, the Treasury wins, in this case by an estimated £440m. The trend is likely to continue in the medium term, as the demographic drop in 18 year-olds is most acute in the socio-economic sectors that are most likely to continue to higher education.

More ‘footloose’ students

So what does this mean for students completing UCAS forms this year? First, the good news.

From 2013, ABB is the level for SNC exemption, so there will be many more footloose students. There will almost certainly be a compensatory upward swing in recruitment next year to balance the books with ABB+ students. Exempt students will be offered incentives such as scholarships or fee-waivers to attract them to some HEIs. At results time, high-scoring students may be able to trade up through adjustment (this meant that in 2012 three times as many students as usual switched to more selective HEIs).

The downside is that there will be increased competition from gap year returners with final grades also vying for places. Moreover, the government has a vested interest to continue to put pressure on awarding bodies to limit higher grades.

It will also be more important than ever for students to achieve the offers they hold, particularly around the ABB boundary. Choice of firm and insurance may need more guidance. And plans for results day activity over appeals and UCAS places by both students and staff need to be put in place.

Social mobility targets

There are a couple of areas where this year’s results have not given a clear steer on what will happen next August.

First, there is now tension between student number controls and the use of contextual data, in offer making, to meet targets on social mobility set by the Office for Fair Access (OFFA). Those from disadvantaged backgrounds with lower grades looking for places will now be competing with the rest of the core for limited places.

To some extent the spotlight on widening participation this year shifted away from admissions to attainment at Key Stage 5 – there were spaces if they got the grades and the overall low demand in 2012 reduced competition in the core anyway.

Second, those universities that do not use all of their core places (because they take ABB and equivalent) cannot redistribute them. I expect that this net waste in the core will mean fewer students going to university. This will most affect those achieving below ABB who do not meet offers.

Although demographic change and deferral activity are relatively foreseeable, pathway choices at 16 may be changing, A level grading and predicted grades are now unreliable, and the behaviour of socio-economic groups under the new funding arrangements is unpredictable.

The one certainty seems to be that the Treasury will be saving money.

  • Steve McArdle is head of sixth form at Durham Johnston Comprehensive School and chair of the state schools’ advisory group at UCAS.