Lower-ranking universities could be financially crippled by the government’s U-turn on A-levels, researchers have warned.
After a major public outcry, students in England were told on Monday that they could use the grades recommended by their teachers if they were higher than the moderated grades they received days earlier.
While many welcomed the about-face, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) said that leading universities would now be “awash” with students – while many less prestigious universities would be forced to forego a substantial chunk of their intake, causing a severe loss of revenue.
The government’s handling of the A-level grades fiasco was “a clear fail”, the think-tank said, which would have “repercussions for universities and students” for years to come.
In a briefing note, the IFS said: “A-level results should never have been released before being subject to scrutiny beyond Ofqual. The government should not have had to rely on shocked 18-year-olds on results day to realise there was a problem.”
Many students had already made choices about which universities they will go to before Education Secretary Gavin Williamson announced the U-turn over the weekend, basing their decisions on the grades they were awarded on results day.
Many top universities are now trying to incentivise students to defer their place by a year – after lobbying them to do the opposite earlier this year, at the peak of the coronavirus crisis.
Universities in England had been allowed to recruit 5 per cent more British students than usual this year, to prevent institutions from over-recruiting to make up for the anticipated loss of revenue as a result of Covid-19.
The University of Durham has said it will offer a bursary and “guaranteed college accommodation” to students who volunteer to start their degrees in autumn 2021, amid fears that its colleges will be unable to house a record number of undergraduates.
Shortage of doctors
On some courses, such as medicine and dentistry, institutions may not be able to admit more students this year as numbers are capped – an issue ministers have vowed to look into.
Dr Helena McKeown, chair of the British Medical Association, said: “The UK is vastly short of doctors so increasing the number of medics in training makes sense, however this must be followed up with support and funding for both the universities sector and the NHS further down the line.”
Jack Britton, an associate director at the IFS, said: “The Government’s U-turn on A-level grades will cause further disruption for universities. Some will struggle with higher than expected numbers of students, while others may find it hard to fill their places.
“Had the Government been more transparent about their proposed mechanism for assigning grades, all this could have been avoided.”
Michelle Donelan, the universities minister, said: “We are working closely with the higher education sector to understand the challenges facing universities and provide as much support as we can.
“I led the first meeting of our new taskforce and I will hold meetings every day with the sector to resolve these issues.
“We are supporting universities, including by announcing our intention to remove temporary student number controls and working with them to help them prioritise students and uphold their first choice, either this coming year, or as a last resort the following year.”