In one of those odd alignments of the planets, three factors arising from government policy have come together in 2014 to create huge competition among top universities for the best students. It’s very much become a buyer’s market for students who are predicted, and then achieve, high A level grades.
Firstly, the Coalition Government removed the cap on the number of students with ABB grades or above whom universities are allowed to recruit. This has meant that high-ranking universities which select from among those top-scoring students have expanded the number of places they offer. Exeter University, for example, has increased undergraduate numbers from around 3,350 to 4,850 in the past two years.
At the same moment, A level exam marking toughened up, with UCAS data showing about 2,600 fewer students scoring ABB+ this year. So, more places, fewer potential students. As a result, clearing week, normally a last-minute panic for applicants who haven’t made their hoped-for grades, featured the extraordinary situation where around half of all high-tariff HE institutions were still advertising courses. Among these were seven of the 24 Russell Group universities. The best students could shop around for the course they wanted, perhaps trading up in institution or across in course content, abandoning a place they’d already accepted – all because some top universities had not reached their recruitment targets.
The third planet looming onto this unusual horizon is, of course, the higher fees introduced two years ago, with some rising from £3,000 to £9,000. This has brought a growing sense of commercialism. It means current students have developed a sense of financial entitlement – they are paying a lot for their course and demand (perhaps rightly) the highest ‘service’ from their teachers through student surveys and feedback. But now this commercial approach has spread to the selection of a course, with universities offering cash and other incentives to lure potential students to sign up, based on their predicted A level results. One vice-chancellor of a leading university decries this approach: “Coming and doing a degree is not just a retail offer. It is something higher than that, and prostituting oneself in this way degrades the whole experience,” he said in The Guardian. But on the other hand, how are institutions to give themselves an edge over others in these competitive times?
Universities are, effectively, making discounts on fees by offering so-called scholarships to students with high grades. So, for example, Queen Mary University of London offered £3,000 a year for three or four years to all science, engineering and finance students with three A grades who listed the institution as their firm choice. Southampton University gave £1,000 a year for a firm acceptance with three As in any subject except medicine or NHS-funded science, and Sheffield made awards of up to £3,000 for engineering and computer science students achieving three As. Universities across the board are doing the same, with offers not only of cash but also of laptops or tablets, exotic field trips, and even free flights home to England, in the case of Queen’s, Belfast.
Some institutions are playing the dangerous game of making lower offers than usual – or even the kind of two-E unconditional offers once the province of Oxbridge applicants who’d passed their entrance examinations. But, over time, these lower offers may degrade a university’s standing. Discounting fees for expensive-to-run science courses will also mean that arts subjects are subsidising them, which may cause future tensions. Meanwhile, high-scoring students have been in clover, with lowered fees and exceptional choice at their fingertips.