End of cycle: increased grades in 2021 will create increased competition for places in 2022

Teacher awarded grades made the 2021 admissions cycle highly unusual. Richard O'Kelly parses sector level end of cycle data and hopes for somewhat calmer times in 2022

Richard O’Kelly is Head of Data and Analysis at UCAS.

The first tranche of 2021 end of cycle analysis gives the most complete picture yet of the second undergraduate admissions year affected by Covid.

Though disruption was experienced across learning, researching options, and applying, the applicants of 2021 showed their resilience and determination to reach higher education in record numbers – backed by a sector that demonstrated enormous flexibility to support them.

When analysing our end of cycle data, we are looking at a subset of all students in the UK – those applying to HE in a given year, and, for consistency, all data discussed here refers to UK 18 year old applicants unless otherwise stated.

The high flyers of 2021

One of the summer’s biggest news stories, not just confined to the education pages, was the increase in students achieving the highest grades. Teachers’ judgement was the basis for grades awarded, backed up by a variety of evidence, rather than externally assessed exams. Higher grades had several effects on university and college admissions, that we can now see in full.

In any given year between 2012 and 2019, around 5,500 applicants achieved top A level grades equivalent to three A*s. In 2021, that nearly quadrupled to 19,500. It was also more than a 50 per cent rise from 2020’s previous high point of 12,700.

This meant there was a significant increase in the number of students securing a place at their first choice of course – 223,000 in 2021 (81 per cent of those placed), compared to 194,00 last year (75 per cent) and 177,000 in 2019 (74 per cent) and a similar percentage year-on-year increase when looking just at Scottish 18 year olds).

While this was highlighted on results day itself, and then led to a quicker Clearing, what has become even more apparent in the end of cycle data is the substantial increase in acceptances at higher tariff universities as a result. They first saw a jump in students in 2020 following the eventual move to teacher assessed grades, as acceptances rose to 92,000, following several years of hovering around 80,000. In 2021, more than 103,000 UK 18 year olds were accepted into higher tariff institutions. This comes despite just a three per cent rise in the UK’s overall 18 year old population.

As Clearing approached, we forecasted that it wasn’t going to be feasible for providers to be as lenient as they had been before with “near-miss” students, because of this expected increase in higher grades. Associated predictions about increases in deferrals have also been borne out in today’s data, with nearly 3,000 more students (and 5,000 more than compared to 2019) deciding to take a year out before starting their course next autumn.

Not all these high achieving, deferring students have decided to keep the place they have though. Instead, they have used their higher grades to completely reapply for some of the most competitive courses in the UK. As seen with the publication of the recent 2022 cycle 15 October deadline data, covering courses at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, plus medicine, dentistry, and veterinary medicine/science courses, there has been a notable increase in students from the 2021 cycle reapplying. These applicants are pairing their excellent results for 2021 with soaring aspirations for 2022, adding another dimension to the current cycle.

Predicted vs achieved grades

This difference between predicted grades, which are mostly made before January when applications are submitted, and achieved grades, shrunk in 2021. It stands to reason that a grade predicted by a teacher, followed by a final grade chiefly determined by the same person would be within a smaller range than with normal exam arrangements.

In 2019, across a three A level grade profile, predicted grades were, on average, around 2.4 grades higher. In 2020, that reduced to 1.0 grades higher, and then fell further to 0.6 grades higher in 2021.

With grades in the 2022 cycle set to be a transition year, final grades are expected to be somewhere between “a point close to midway between 2021 and 2019” and “results are likely to be higher than in 2019, but not as high as in 2020” according to DfE guidance.

As universities and colleges now understand what the likely standard for 2022 is, they can adjust offer making and confirmation strategies accordingly, whereas this was more challenging in previous cycles – while also being mindful of the uncertainty of Covid and the potential impact on learning.

The experience of BTEC students

On first glance, it could appear there is a discrepancy between A level and BTEC students, and that vocational students have been hard done by. Fewer students applying to an undergraduate course with a non-reformed BTEC extended diploma achieved the top marks in 2021 (6,000) than 2020 (6,400). However, there has been fluctuation in these numbers for several years. One factor in this has been the introduction of the reformed BTEC qualifications, which more students took in 2021 than 2020, with more top grades awarded this year.

Looking at the acceptance rate – the proportion of those accepted, from who applied – paints a more stable picture. As there is naturally more coursework to assess students on throughout the year, the nature of BTEC qualifications means that final grade profiles have remained more consistent.

There is less than a 2.5 percentage point difference in the acceptance rate among the highest achieving students taking a non-reformed qualification between 2020 and 2021 – and 2021 is on par with 2019. The difference in acceptance rate for reformed BTECs from 2020 to 2021 is smaller still. So, while it is harder to measure if BTEC students have been displaced by their A level counterparts, BTEC applicants’ grades haven’t risen at the scale that A level students have.

A competitive year lies ahead

The journey to a million total applicants of all ages and domiciles is well under way – there is now only a gap of 250,000 between the final 2021 total and 1,000,000. However, the gap between the number of places and the number of applicants, especially for courses that were already very competitive, such as medicine and dentistry, looks set to grow in the immediate future.

The rise in apprenticeship interest also needs to be considered – searches in UCAS’ Career Finder are up 45 per cent in the last 12 months. 2022 will undoubtedly be a different landscape again; although there are the early signals for providers to use as they put plans in place to manage the cycle fairly and, as everything currently stands, expect hopefully less disruption than we’ve all experienced over the last two admissions years.

This article was published in association with UCAS.

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