David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

It is a little like the plot from a dystopian novel.

A culture in which the course of a person’s life is determined by three (or four if you went to a posh school) letters, allocated on adulthood. A ceremony where adults in positions of power fling abuse and invective at those just starting their life, or offer trite and insulting advice.

The whole week of Results Day is riven with curious traditions (a sermon, for instance, from a disgraced former motoring journalist turned terrible farmer) but the idea that the wrong set of letters closes off life choices is a tradition that needs to end now.

Let me show you how.

People get everywhere

Enter the broad and narrow subjects area you are interested in using the two boxes at the top of this visualisation. Then enter the grades you are interested in in the boxes below. These should be A level grades – as we will see there are myriad other ways to get to university that don’t involve A levels, but for clarity it is A levels only here. If you enter “none” in a box it will show U (this is because a U grade has a zero tariff value).

The blue box in the middle tells you the number of tariff points those grades are worth, and shows you the number of courses that students with around that number of points are currently on in your chosen subject area.

[Full screen]

The white section below lets you see individual courses, sorted by the proportion of students currently on the course with around your chosen grade or below. If you mouse over the current bar you find out the name of the course and some available options on it, along with the number of students we are talking about, and whether this figure refers to just that course or a wider subject area.

You can filter the white area by region, qualification aim (BSc, BA, LLB, MPharm or whatever), mode of study (part-time, full-time), or provider – and also highlight course titles of interest.

How to get into university

The grade mix of students actually on a course came as a bit of a surprise to Team Wonkhe when I shared this visualisation with them earlier this week. There’s a fair few courses that make a lot of noise about “requiring” three As or whatever that – when it comes down to it – have a lot of students on that didn’t even get close. So how does that work?

For all kinds of very good reasons some people with a lot of potential may not do well in A levels. A friend of mine had a parent fall seriously ill, a grandparent die, moved house, and witnessed the death of an adored guinea pig all during exam month. Others face more structural barriers to attainment – a chaotic homelife, a need to work or perform unpaid care work, a recent migration from a war zone. There are very well established routes to getting on a course if the grades aren’t there.

Just ringing up if you missed your offer

Most people do worse than predicted at A level. But if you have a firm offer, it is quite likely that your chosen course will be keen to have you aboard. They already know you (and like you enough to make an offer), you’ve already mentally committed to the course and provider (which means you are more likely to stay on the course). Universities don’t talk enough about this flexibility, but it is used all the time.


My colleague Sunday Blake wrote in praise of clearing recently – and she is right that the stigma attached to a later decision is unwarranted. In any given subject there are many great courses that, for whatever reason, don’t have the prestige of others. These tend to be at providers that focus on undergraduate teaching and do it incredibly well. Courses in clearing tend to waive the initial grade requirements – they are looking for potential, and if you choose well you can end up somewhere great.

Foundation years

If your A levels are a long way off what you hoped, and you can’t face A level resits, then a foundation year is one option to get started at university. It’s an extra year of study at the provider you want to go to that will prepare you for the course you initially wanted to do. It means, of course, an extra year of fee loans and an extra year of living costs – but it is a way into the course you had set your heart on without those pesky grades.

Similarly, the Access to HE courses offered at some FE colleges are fantastic introductions to higher study. These are included on the UCAS Tariff but only in certain configurations. Others – perhaps via an articulation agreement – may be used to enter a course, despite having a low (or no) assigned tariff value.

Mature entry

Many students choose to study at university later in life. If you apply past the age of about 20 your life experience and personal story become more important than your A level grades back in the day. There are strong arguments to study later in life, though you do miss out on the carnage of the first hard-partying weeks it is possible to have that kind of a good time elsewhere.

But zero tariff points?

There are many other routes into higher education. Some hold level three qualifications so unusual they don’t attract tariff points. Some interview (or audition) so well they get a place unconditionally based on their potential. Some apply directly to a provider via a non-UCAS route (this is usually mature students but there are always exceptions). And there are surely many others even I don’t know about.

Or (gods forbid) maybe the data isn’t very good.

Where the data comes from and what it doesn’t tell us

The government supports a student information service called DiscoverUni. Don’t worry if you haven’t heard of it, neither has anyone else. We don’t use it here, of course, but we will be using the underlying data known as Unistats.

Unistats is a rich but flawed dataset. It is the only way we ever get to look at individual courses at individual universities. For instance, you can see the proportion of students who achieved UCAS Tariff points between two preset points (the Tariff combines the letters into a single number) for each course. So if you know what BCC is worth (104 points) you can easily figure out what proportion of the students currently on a course achieved around that or less.

I’m saying “course” like this is straightforward data. It isn’t – a course is often an individual course, but it can also (in order to get a sensible number of students to report on) refer to an aggregate of two years, or students in a narrow subject area, or even in quite a broad subject area. I’ve indicated this in the tool tips (mouse over the bars). I’ve also omitted instances where no data is returned (the course or subject is too small) or when the subject area of the data returned is not the same as the declared subject area of the course in question.

And “around” however many tariff points? Unistats data put student tariff points into one of 15 buckets – the visualisation grabs the bucket your score is in and all those below. So BCC (104 points) gives you the bucket between 96 points and 112 points, and all those below. It’s not perfect, but it is a good enough resolution to make my point.

And the data we do get is often rounded. So proportions don’t always add up to 100 per cent.

Not quite the Hunger Games

If this dive into the obscure corners of higher education data has taught us one thing, it should be that admissions is messier and more human than the mechanistic interpretation that seems to be the cultural norm. Courses that have people on with lower tariff points than expected are not “poor quality”, they are offering the kinds of opportunities that higher education should be offering.

Those three or four letters might feel like a lot on results day, but in the long run enthusiasm, hard work, and hope matter far more at university.

One response to “University admission is more than just A levels

  1. My son’s case is quite the opposite. His A Level results outperformed the predicted grades used for his UCAS applications. He has obtained A*,A,A in his A level recently and is settling for a Foundation course, not because he doesn’t make the grades for straight entry into an Engineering degree programme but because his predicted grades was lower!

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