By Graeme Paton
Top universities may be setting students up to fail by admitting applicants with D grades at A-level in a bid to fill places, a leading vice-chancellor has warned.
Some members of the elite Russell Group have been forced to “significantly drop” their entry requirements to plug a shortfall in demand for degree courses, according to Prof Sir Christopher Snowden.
The academic – incoming president of Universities UK, the vice-chancellors’ group – said a number of institutions advertised places for students with A and B grades last year but took in teenagers with Cs and Ds to prevent courses lying empty.
In an interview with the Telegraph, he said the move was a reflection of the problems faced by top universities after a rise in fees, toughening up of A-levels and changes to student number controls led to a drop in the number of well-qualified applicants.
Sir Christopher, vice-chancellor of Surrey University, which has adopted a strict B grade minimum entry threshold, said institutions were attempting to avoid a repeat this year but insisted there was “no guarantee” this would happen.
It comes after the publication of figures suggested that Britain’s 24 Russell Group institutions started the academic year with around 11,500 vacancies last September.
This year, several universities have already advertised scholarships worth up to £10,000 a year to convince the brightest students to accept places.
Birmingham – a Russell Group member – also announced it would make 1,000 “unconditional” offers of places this year to gifted students irrespective of their final A-level scores.
But Sir Christopher, who will lead UUK from August this year, said any move to lower entry requirements to fill places risked damaging students’ morale and increasing the likelihood of undergraduates receiving a poor degree.
He also cautioned against downgrading offers for students from poor-performing schools and deprived backgrounds to hit Government admissions targets, saying places should be awarded on “merit”.
“One of the things that becomes evident is that, if you take a student into a university you should give them every opportunity to graduate,” he said. “If you put students who are too weak in with a cohort that’s very strong, they are unlikely to prosper… You are not setting them up for success so it is not a reasonable thing to do. ”
Last year, Surrey refused to accept any student with grades lower than three Bs, rejecting at least one who gained ABC.
But one careers adviser approached by the Telegraph this week told how students were systematically receiving conditional offers of places for this September from top universities despite predicted grades falling well short of entry standards.
Sir Christopher said: “I know for a fact that several Russell Group universities significantly dropped their grades last year because, bluntly, they had to. You can imagine, if you are a university and you miss your [recruitment] target by far enough, it’s a serious situation.”
He said: “You have got to bear in mind, last year, we took the unusual step of making it clear we weren’t going to take any students below BBB at all.
“The reason I say that is, if you go and talk to the Russell Group, you will find quite a lot of them will say, ‘we’re AAB’.
“But I can tell you now that I know Manchester took BBC students and some Russell Group universities took ACD students. We didn’t.”
Sir Christopher added: “Last year, we had a student who achieved ABC and we did not take that student.
“The reason is that practice has taught us that students who fall below the threshold often have problems later on in the course and we don’t want them to have problems. We want to help them succeed.”
Universities have been encouraged by the Government to specifically lower entry requirements to admit more students from poor-performing schools and deprived backgrounds.
The move is supposed to mark out student “potential” and acknowledge the relative problems these teenagers have hitting exam grade thresholds. Universities are being forced to set tough targets to increase entrants from “under-represented groups”.
But Sir Christopher appeared to criticise the approach, saying it was “extremely difficult to be certain of the potential of an individual”.
He said Surrey ran a programme in which academics go into schools and provide direct support for pupils “with the aim of trying to raise the grades the students achieve”.
“It is quite intensive but it might be a more productive way forward than some of the other options [such as lowering grades],” he said.
“If you lower the grades, there is still the education deficit. If you take a student in who is two or three grades below the average it is not going to be very easy for them, even if they are bright, in that scenario.”
Tim Westlake, director of student experience at Manchester, insisted the university also had a B grade entry threshold and denied students were recruited with C grades.
He said the university actually under-recruited by 500, adding: “We had a similar blanket policy [to Surrey] but I would suggest it was a mistake because we under-recruited.”
Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group, which represents universities including Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial, Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds, said: “Russell Group universities are generally highly selective universities and have an average of six applications per place.
“A-level and equivalent qualifications are without doubt the key source of information about academic ability… But for any course the offers made, and grades achieved, will be both above and below the typical offer.
“Russell Group universities also take a range of factors into account to ensure that we can identify those suitably qualified candidates with the talent and potential to excel.
“All our universities want to maintain high academic standards and they do not admit anyone unless they are confident they will be able to succeed on the course. We have low drop-out rates across all our universities.” (The Telegraph)