2020 admissions: sometimes dreams do come true

The A level crisis has brought about what looks like a great new deal for universities and applicants - but risks are never far away.

This morning sees an increase in teaching funding linked to numbers for English providers, and an expansion in funded places in medicine, veterinary medicine, and teaching.

What’s going on?

A thaw?

It’s been a lazy but convenient shorthand to assume that the current government has an antipathy for universities – looking to thin out the sector, and encourage young people from disadvantaged backgrounds onto alternative educational paths. We’ve heard enough rumblings, and seen enough evidence in policy, to make this a useful working assumption.

On the face of it, additional funding to recruit more students feels like a retreat from this position. It could be that public polling (I note the legendarily poll-loving Public First involvement in Ofqual messaging…) is showing that “ivory tower” knocking copy may be popular in abstract, but feels different when the impression of closing down pathways to opportunity affects families directly. Certainly Jo Johnson, writing in The Spectator, concurs:

The last few days and weeks have shown us just how much a place at university is valued by young people and their families.

The detail

Medicine, dentistry, veterinary medicine, and undergraduate teacher training places have always been capped by the government – a last vestige of a planned skills economy that primarily exists because these courses include resources and placements (let’s hope that the Department of Health is also extending these!) that need to be specifically funded outside of the usual higher education envelope. Jonathan Rees explained the medical model on the site last year.

In each case, the number of places is not now capped, with the assumption that “all students who achieved the required grades will be offered a place at their first choice university”. The wording here is critical – this is not a free-for-all, but only applies to existing offers. UCAS will know the number of people holding offers in these subjects – and it is reasonable to expect that now the government does too. This measure is described in “pandemic” terms – an expansion to spending on medical and teaching training (along with warm words on increasing capacity in the – uncapped – nursing part of the sector) as a response to the issues the world faces.

The other end of this expansion involves an increase in the teaching funding allocation for high-cost subjects. You’ll recall that this year was originally slated for a review of the Office for Students funding method, which could have seen radical changes to the way the regulator allocates teaching funding. We’ve been assured that though this allocation will flow through OfS as usual, and that it will not be affected by the planned review. This is important as additional funding will be flowing for the three (or more) year duration of courses – providers will welcome the certainty.

Policy continues by other means?

There’s a few lines in the release that should give us pause. Applicants are encouraged to “self-release through UCAS from their existing offer and accept a new offer at their preferred university”. As applications staff are bored of telling us, applicants apply to a course, not a university – so this advice extends far beyond those who have met an offer they didn’t meet on Thursday.

The combination of this encouragement, and the continued absence of support for providers who might lose out in an environment where applicants are seen as being able to “trade up”, makes for worrying policy weather.

As Universities UK points out:

Government now needs to urgently confirm funding both to ensure the financial stability of institutions suffering from a loss of students and to offer further support to maintain and build capacity where needed.

If the market for higher education suddenly starts working, as DfE clearly believes it will, it could be that forcing smaller and less “prestigious” providers to the wall is part of the plan.

A level changes

The changes in A level results works differently for different subjects, with some exams seeing a greater extent of inflation than others. Top of the beneficiaries are A level biology students, an extra 15 per cent of whom now have a B or higher.

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These subject differentials will have an impact on the number of students in each discipline who have now met their conditional offers. UCAS estimates that around 15,000 applicants once again have a “live” firm offer, noting that 7 per cent of these are in POLAR4 quintile 1 (most disadvantaged) which tells us that the other 93 per cent are not. The 2020 intake could well be about to get even posher.

Clearing activity

With results being communicated to providers on Friday evening, we’ve not yet seen the impact of the variety of government responses on applicant activity. On the face of it – we are on the slightly more cautious side of the normal post-results track right now. Firm offer acceptances are up on recent years. Currently around 15,000 more are holding an offer they have not yet accepted than in the last two years, but this number has fallen at similar rates as historically over the course of the cycle.

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Numbers placed from the main scheme through clearing or adjustment are down sharply on recent trends, and insurance offers accepted started and have remained low.

Admissions staff are describing this period as an applications “phony war”, with plenty of calls seeking advice and options rather than accepting places. For Monday’s data release we should be keeping an eye on movement between the “placed” categories and any rises in numbers free to be placed in clearing.

One issue I’ve heard a few times concerns the importance of a place in student accommodation this year. The attractiveness of a clean, safe, room in a hall of residence on or near campus is a big draw for applicants concerned about Covid-19. Applicants making late switches may not have this guarantee at their new provider.

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