Heads of some of the UK’s elite universities fear they may be forced to take thousands of extra students they feel they do not have room for this summer, if teacher-assessed A-levels lead to far more 18-year-olds achieving the grades they need to obtain a place.
During last summer’s A-level fiasco, when thousands of students had their A-levels marked up at the last minute, some elite universities accepted up to a third more students than planned because so many met their offer grades. This year, teacher-assessed A-levels are widely expected to result in far more students with top grades again, leaving some universities worrying about how they will cope.
Vice-chancellors say they have to take everyone who meets the conditions of their offer, unless they can persuade them – or pay them – to defer their place to next year, when there should be less pressure on accommodation and facilities.
The head of a university in the elite Russell Group, who asked not to be named, said: “Private accommodation providers here are already saying bookings are full. We are worried about over-recruitment. Once students have made the grade, there is nothing much you can do. Last year, some places were paying students to defer. Some universities will want to grab extra students but we just don’t want to take them.”
Oxford and Cambridge universities are both thought to have made fewer offers this year to protect themselves, and Cambridge says on its website that in the “unlikely” event it does not have enough places for everyone who achieves their offer conditions, it will identify students who are “happy to transfer colleges or defer their places”.
According to data from the admissions service, Ucas, University College London took 32% more UK undergraduate students in 2020 than the previous year. The University of Sheffield took 27% more; the University of Manchester took 22% more. Exeter University and King’s College London both accepted 21% more students.
With space at a premium, especially in city-based universities, experts say this meant packed halls of residence and intense pressure on staff and physical space at a time when institutions were trying to enforce social distancing to keep everyone safe.
Andrew Hargreaves, the founder of Data HE, a consultancy that advises universities on admissions, and formerly director of marketing at Ucas, said: “You can feel a perfect storm brewing. I think there may well be another summer of deep discontent. How many people with high grades will naturally assume they can get into a Russell Group university?”
Hargreaves argues that given the likelihood of more students getting higher A-level grades again, at the same time that the number of 18-year-olds in the country has increased, and with “intense demand” to study at university, many prestigious universities may find themselves with a “serious capacity problem”.
“Universities have to think about the physical constraints,” he says. “Do they have enough space to teach these students and enough accommodation? They need to think about the possibility of social distancing constraints in the future. Do they have enough academics?”
Smita Jamdar, the head of education at law firm Shakespeare Martineau, has called for a “mature conversation” about the practical problems universities have without them being “pilloried for destroying the hopes of a generation”.
She said: “Institutions are going to be in some difficulty if they find they have suddenly got an extra few thousand students this year who have made the grades.”
Jamdar argues that the government is demanding the impossible from leading institutions: not wanting anyone who gets high grades to miss out, but also expecting universities to “magically ensure that this doesn’t affect the quality of what is on offer”.
UCL insists it was right to expand numbers last year, rather than letting down students who had achieved their offer grades. But the university does not feel able to keep expanding and has made 3,000 fewer offers for master’s places, despite an increase in demand, to ease congestion, as well as making fewer offers to sixth-formers.
UCL took on about 8,300 new UK and overseas undergraduates last September, instead of the planned 6,000. Its president, Prof Michael Spence, said the university was working hard to try to make next year as normal as possible – and that meant avoiding cramming students in.
“Accepting too many applicants is bad for the student experience. We’ve got a generation of students whose education has already been disrupted by Covid and we don’t want our students to be in overcrowded spaces.”
Mike Nicholson, the director of undergraduate admissions and outreach at the University of Bath, said Bath took a conscious decision not to over-recruit last year “to keep students and staff safe” and intended to do the same this year.
Bath made a lot fewer offers because it expected far more students to get A or A* grades, and waited until late April to make most offers.
He said that once sixth-formers realised teacher assessment was looking likely many went for universities “at the top end of their ability range”. As a result, universities such as Bath, which demand high grades for most courses, have reported “a quite significant increase in applications this year”.
However, Nicholson said many universities started the year worrying about securing enough applications in what is a fierce market for students. “They turned around offers quickly or opted to reduce their offers to reassure students who had faced a lot of disruption in their education,” he explains.
Now, he says, “they may be regretting having made so many offers”.
Colin Riordan, the vice-chancellor of Cardiff University, a member of the Russell Group, said his university would take everyone who achieved their offer grades “and find a way of managing”.
“Taking extra students isn’t simple,” he explained. “Some areas like medicine have strict limits.”
There are things universities can do, he said, to accommodate more students, such as buying in new equipment, fitting out new spaces for teaching a popular subject, or even placing temporary classrooms in car parks. He warned, however: “If you take on new students you have to be careful about staff to student ratios, which means you have to employ enough people, but that often involves a delay.”
And he said it was difficult for universities to make “irreversible” hiring decisions when they did not know whether these increased student numbers would be a lasting trend.
Nick Hillman, the director of the Higher Education Policy Institute thinktank, argued that staff could be found. “It is a fierce job market for young academics so there will always be young postdocs willing to take on short-term teaching contracts.”
The University and College Union says none of this will be good for staff. It is particularly worried that academics and support staff, who are exhausted after months of supporting students through the pandemic, will see their workloads spiral.
Vicky Blake, the union’s president, says: “I am really worried about what this will mean. Workload is already beyond a crisis. But people across the sector are terrified of losing their jobs, so I think they will feel unable to say no, even when it gets too much.”