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Top UK universities 'use secret waiting lists' due to Covid uncertainty

Rachel Hall and Richard Adams
·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Rui Vieira/PA</span>
Photograph: Rui Vieira/PA

British universities are taking extreme measures to ensure a supply of recruits for the coming academic year, with some accused of operating secret waiting lists to encourage school leavers to accept their offers amid uncertainty over A-level results.

With many admissions offices braced for a second year of turmoil over results and grade inflation, experts are predicting record-breaking numbers of applications for university places.

But universities vying for highly qualified candidates fear that popular universities – including those in the Russell Group of leading research institutions – may seek to benefit from the likely grade inflation by increasing their undergraduate recruitment for a second year in a row, leaving less popular universities with fewer students to choose from.

A senior figure in national university admissions said some of the most competitive universities are managing the uncertainty with informal waiting lists, in which they contact individual applicants outside the formal admissions process to tell them they may be accepted regardless of their grades if places remain – making those students less likely to accept places at other institutions.

He predicted that such waiting lists would be used more widely this year, making it more difficult for less prestigious universities to recruit those students.

The accusation of “secret waiting lists” was confirmed by one vice-chancellor, who said that some universities have been known to use the tactic in previous years.

Related: UK university students wasted £1bn in a year on empty accommodation

The government announced last week that A-level and BTec results in England would be based on teacher assessments rather than exams. But the decision to leave schools without firm national guidelines was denounced as “catastrophic” by a vice-chancellor, who expects the move to lead to higher grades and increased instability within the sector as universities struggle to accurately predict how many students will qualify for places.

Higher grades across the board creates a dilemma for universities that made offers to students before the change in grading policy, as well as meaning that more students will qualify for a wider range of courses. The deadline for most school leavers to apply was at the end of January but many had applied before the new year, and the news that exams would be cancelled.

Head teachers reported that Russell Group universities “slammed on the brakes” in making offers to sixth formers after 6 January, when the government announced that this year’s exams would be scrapped, and have only recently restarted making offers.

Mark Corver, an admissions expert and founder of DataHE, said his modelling predicts an additional 50,000 school leavers will accept undergraduate places for the 2021-22 academic year, on top of the record-breaking 371,000 young British students accepted last year. This is because of a range of factors including changing demographics, grade inflation and poor job opportunities in the pandemic.

“Universities might well have made offers on the basis of what the government had in mind earlier in the cycle, that it would be exam-awarded grades with grade distribution similar to previous years. Now the currency of those grades has changed. It’s almost as though they made offers in pounds and are now being asked to accept dollars,” said Corver.

“Many universities I speak to are thinking hard about what their maximum emergency capacity might be for 2021-22.”

Last year many universities that traditionally require high A-level grades actively recruited a higher number of UK students, because they feared a steep decline in overseas students. This year uncertainty is about evidence in the decline in EU students following Brexit, with figures published by the Ucas admissions authority showing a 40% drop this year.

Last year so many students accepted places at popular universities that several were forced to ask students to defer for a year. The University of Cambridge has this year introduced an over-subscription clause, which allows it to withdraw offers if too many candidates qualify for places.

Bella Malins, director of admissions at University College London, said her university does not operate any waiting lists but has been making offers cautiously after it was overwhelmed by demand last year.

“Most universities have been quite circumspect with their offers this year because of what happened in 2020,” Malins said.

“We usually try to work out how many students we need based on years’ worth of historical data such as how applications convert to offers, acceptances and intake. We’ve not been able to do that because last year was so different and everything is up in the air this year.”

Kerry O’Shea, director of admissions at the University of Bristol, said her institution usually staggers its offer-making, but that this year it would need even more flexibility. The university will notify students who may receive places later in the admissions cycle and in the event of spots available through the clearing process on A-level results day.

Last year the use of teacher-assessed results lead to a leap in the number of higher grades issued, with 38% of all A-level entries awarded an A or A* grade in England. There were similar increases for qualifications in Scotland and Wales.

Some universities responded by honouring as many offers as possible, which meant UCL’s undergraduate intake ballooned by 40%. But other universities appear to have lost students as a result, with the University of Surrey seeing its annual undergraduate intake shrink by 20%.

Related: Demand for UK nursing degrees rises by a third in pandemic

Corver warned that this year’s A-level students will be less prepared for university, having had more than half their learning time disrupted by lockdowns and Covid, compared with 25% for the 2020 cohort.

“Government can help by providing extra support to gradually repair the pandemic damage over the next three years,” Corver said.

Ray Powell, admissions tutor at the University of Greenwich, said growing numbers of students who had accepted places at high-ranking universities were asking to switch to others such as Greenwich. He expects switching to intensify if universities continue to recruit less-qualified candidates.

“I’m seeing many more students transfer in their second or third years because they’re not getting the results they might have got at a different university with a support network that’s used to dealing with people from less advantaged educational backgrounds,” Powell said.