After months of debating and guessing how many school leavers might start a university degree this autumn, and what effects this will have on universities, it turns out that the sector might face both a financial strain at one end of the spectrum, and limited capacity at the other. This will affect not only the type and quality of provision for students for this and the coming years at some institutions, but the sector’s ability to support the UK economy post-Covid.

The A-Level aftermath

Following the A-Level fiasco over the past few weeks, the devolved nations opted for Centre Assessment Grades (CAG) at last. This means that an unusually high number of pupils have now met or even exceeded not only their expected grades, but their conditional offers at the universities they applied to. While the Government’s decision to allow all students who achieved the required grades to be offered a place at their first choice university is welcomed, the late movement of students between institutions will have unintended consequences for the university sector. The financial stability of institutions suffering from a loss of students needs to be ensured, and support offered to maintain and build capacity where needed.

While some universities might struggle to fill capacity, others will be exceeding theirs. While the former can pose a serious financial strain on universities, the latter can affect teaching and learning quality as well as create a problem for those universities to successfully implement social distancing measures.

This year’s Clearing

This year’s Clearing is slightly different from previous years. While clearing usually provides a safety net for students who might have missed their grades, this year’s grade adjustments means a larger proportion of students might find a better course for themselves at a university that they might originally have ruled out. Lower entry tariff universities might ‘lose out’ next to higher ranking ones, if the students that have now met or exceeded their grade will accept places at higher ranking institutions. This can put a financial strain on some universities, while others, many of which might be higher ranking ones, will struggle with limited capacity.

Might this adjustment disproportionately benefit disadvantaged students?

Unfortunately, no. While the grades for students from disadvantaged backgrounds have also been adjusted, these changes do not make 2020 results more equitable. “There is a documented tendency for young people from a more privileged socio-economic background to achieve both better predicted and actual grades. With these two becoming (for one year only) one, the playing field is still not level” (WonkHE, 2020).

What about deferring?

At this point in the clearing cycle (12 days after JCQ results day), fewer 18-year-olds in England, Scotland and Wales have deferred university places than in any of the three years prior. In Northern Ireland, slightly fewer 18-year-olds have been deferred than last year, however, more than in 2017 and 2018. The jump of non-EU 18-year-olds having been deferred is staggering, rising from 420 in 2019 to 790 this year at this point in the cycle. No such strong trend is visible for EU (excluding UK) 18-year-olds, for which deferral is at its lowest since 2013 at this point in the cycle. These patterns change again when taking into account all age groups. No conclusions can be drawn from this just yet, and the kind of rupture the pandemic is causing in higher education will show its full effect in the coming months and years.

Which students still choose to go to university despite Covid-19, and whether there are differences across students from different backgrounds will be revealed at the end of the clearing cycle. How this will affect disadvantaged students, social mobility on a greater scale, and the future of skills in the long term remains to be seen. What is clear is that the sector is getting ready to put out fires at all corners, which will impact on universities’ ability to offer support to UK business. Only with effective government support can universities fulfil their double role as education providers and economic drivers.