Many universities still do not know how many undergraduates will start courses next month as vice-chancellors fear the number of UK undergraduates could fall by as much as 10,000 following falling A-level grades.
The vice-chancellor of a newer university, who declined to be named, said he knew how many students would start courses “only to the nearest 350”. He added that he expected to be “quite a long way down” from last year.
According to Ucas, the university admissions service, 426,000 places at UK universities have been filled – down 30,000 on the same time last year. Some 492,000 students eventually accepted places in 2011.
Although the number of applicants has dropped this year, 157,000 candidates are applying for the remaining places. However, following the government reforms – the highest profile part of which has been a rise in the cap on fees from £3,375 to £9,000 – matching students to universities is more complicated than in previous years.
Universities may now take as many students who achieve at least two As and one B at A-level as they wish. In previous years, they had a fixed quota of places. The number of places for non-AAB+ students is still capped, so institutions that lose these students to other universities will shrink, while those that attract the high performers could expand.
This shift had been expected to squeeze middle-ranking institutions. Universities ranging from Liverpool, where 42 per cent of students last year achieved AAB+, down to Plymouth, where 10 per cent did so, were seen as at risk. But the effects may be more severe and widespread.
This is because Hefce, the sector regulator, had predicted there would be 85,000 AAB+ students, but following this year’s A-level grade deflation, officials estimate the number at between 75,000-80,000.
As a result, there could be a 5,000-10,000 fall in total student numbers, with some of the effects hitting the upper-middle range of universities. This comes on top of a 10,000 fall in university places, which were reallocated to lower-cost further education colleges.
Eric Thomas, vice-chancellor of Bristol and president of Universities UK, said: “There are so many variables and interdependencies that it was inevitable there will be unpredicted consequences from interventions in the system.”
The problem is greater for students than for the sector. Hefce says institutions ran a 4.6 per cent operating surplus – £1.1bn – in 2010-11. Universities also had £21bn in net assets in 2009-10, although this masks variation between universities. Hefce also noted that where there were falling rolls, the effects would be “mitigated by increases in student fees”.
In addition, research and postgraduates account for a large portion of the sector’s £22bn income. And next year the undergraduate bar will drop from AAB+ to ABB+, which will mean some of the shocks of this year are one-offs.
Furthermore, the contingent of non-EU students helps insulate the sector against domestic problems – although vice-chancellors fear the government drive to cut net immigration could hurt universities. (Financial Times)