With the busiest clearing day ever set to take place this Thursday, universities have promised to take a flexible approach due to the new grading system that was introduced as a result of Covid-19.
Experts predict that the most selective universities will substantially drop their grade requirements to take on as many students as possible to compensate for projected falls in international students, whose higher fees are used to shore up university finances.
Richard Harvey, academic admissions director at the University of East Anglia, said this means that students should not worry if they do worse than expected in their A-levels. “If you’ve slightly missed your grades, any university worth its salt will accept you.”
He added that despite the increased demand from domestic students universities are still likely to struggle financially this year. “There is going to be a fight. Even if you replace every international student with a home student you’re still looking at substantial losses because of the fee differences. I think most universities will lose £30m in revenue – you cannot imagine losing less than 10% of turnover. Even if we had a fantastic result I don’t think we could get away with losing less than £10m.”
Harvey said that the universities which recruit students with the lowest grades will be hardest hit. “The Russell Group will eat the sandwiches of those in the middle and the middle of the bottom, and the bottom will have nowhere to go and they close.”
As well as applying for the first time or if they’ve missed their grades, students use clearing to change course or university – and experts are expecting lots of switching to happen on 13 August.
“I think this year we may see more churn. We’ve got the added complication of Covid-19 and, particularly for students who applied before the January deadline, they had a conception in their heads of university that’s quite different to what’s facing them. We might see kids switching from doing history 300 miles away to wanting to do something in healthcare that’s commutable,” said Tracey Lancaster, deputy vice-chancellor at Leeds Beckett University.
Several universities report increased interest from students in commuting to university from home rather than moving away, given that the experience will be different this year due to social distancing measures. Some universities have seen falls in bookings for places in halls of residence despite overall student numbers holding steady.
The proportion of A-level students in England receiving A* to C grades increased by 2.4 percentage points despite one-third of grades being downgraded this year
Guardian graphic | Source: Joint Council for Qualifications. Base: English A-level students
“We’re seeing in our conversations with applicants that more are considering staying at home and commuting in, so they’re starting to look for more local universities. They’re not sure about moving into halls or across the country, it feels a bit of a step too far,” said Chris Shelley, director of student and academic services at the University of Greenwich.
Other universities are reporting increased interest in certain subject areas, such as healthcare and public services, driven by the spotlight thrown on NHS careers during the coronavirus pandemic and a search for stable professions due to the economic recession.
Universities say they are deluged with questions from anxious students about plans for online learning and safety measures. Some are promoting the low rates of coronavirus in the areas their campuses are based, such as University of East Anglia in Norwich, which has had just one case of the disease.