The changing face of university applications

Alice Barrett, Academic Director of Sixth Form

The pandemic caused upheaval in all areas of our lives and the classes of 2020 – 2022 will certainly confirm that this very much included A Levels, UCAS, and university admissions. 

To give you some background, in 2020 teachers were asked to calculate grades (CAGs) using data for their students from no later than 20th March, 2020. These carefully calculated grades and rankings were then subject to an algorithm. This algorithm, which was later to become infamously known as “mutant”, was subsequently scrapped and all students were allocated their teacher grades. In 2021, once A Levels and GCSEs were eventually cancelled, the approach was to use teacher grades with no algorithms (TAGs) for that year’s cohort, using data up to the end of May. 

As a result in both 2020 and 2021, more 18 year olds than ever before gained their firm choice for university. 

In some camps this was cause for alarm and fear of permanent grade inflation; others saw this as a chance for true social mobility and hoped for the beginning of the end of national standardised public exams. The reality has been somewhat different. 

Grade boundaries for 2022 have been adjusted to be lowered from 2020 and 2021 but not quite back to 2019 levels and A Levels and GCSEs seem set very firmly to remain. Moreover, the effect of two years of higher admissions numbers has led to one of the toughest for students this year with competition for places at a level not seen since the scramble to avoid £9,000 annual tuition fees in 2012. 

While this year could be considered as a strict, one-year-only, course corrective to recalibrate numbers to the top courses at the top institutions, it is likely that this stringency will continue into 2023 and possibly 2024. This fact, combined with an increasing number of 18 year olds in the population, means that students need to research carefully and think hard about what they want to study, where they want to study it and if university should, in fact, be their default route. 

Gone are the days when a three A* prediction guaranteed you a place at medical school (medical school acceptance was down from the annual rate of 21 per cent to 16 per cent this year) or that non-Oxbridge but internationally-renowned universities could be seen as a “back-up” to an Oxbridge application. Students need to think carefully about why they are only looking at Southern institutions when 12 of the 22 Russell Group institutions are north of Watford. They also need to consider not only the REF (Research Excellence Framework, upon which entry to the Russell Group is predicated) but also the TEF (Teaching Excellence Framework), in which dozens of non-Russell Group universities score outstanding. Research shows that, ultimately, what you get in your degree is more important that where it is from. What that means in plain terms is that a 1st from University of Sussex is better than a 2:2 from LSE, for example. 

There are other factors to consider when considering life post-school, too. The cost of attending university is soaring as university fees don’t in fact cover the cost of subsidising a student through their undergraduate degree. In addition, as we hear more and more frequently, there are careers that young people will undertake when they eventually enter the workplace that don’t even exist yet. 

For this reason, ensuring that a student gains meaningful work experience while studying is essential. Students can do this in the long summer vacations or by choosing a year in industry as part of their degree course, but more and more young people are choosing to apply for either Level 3 apprenticeships straight after school or the degree-apprenticeship route. The advantages of earning while you learn and coming out with a professional qualification are numerous. Of course, for some, losing out on the full student experience (living in halls, studying all term) is not a sacrifice they want to make, but for others, this route will be the best fit and a cost-effective route to an excellent career.

For those sticking with the UCAS route for now, some additional changes are on the horizon. UCAS has consulted with key stakeholders about the application form and while it looks like the personal statement is likely to stay (student feedback is that they like it!), the reference section is likely to be radically overhauled. Moreover, the discussion still rages over whether predicted grades should be scrapped entirely in favour of post qualification applications (when students apply in the summer after A Levels) or pre-qualification applications combined with post-qualification offers. However, despite the huge appetite for predicted grades to go (they are wildly inaccurate), it seems unlikely that this kind of change will happen before a general election. With the new Prime Minister unlikely to call one until the last possible moment, these changes are five years away at least (as they would take two to three years to go through the vetting process once approved). 

In the meantime, I encourage all Headington students to research incredibly carefully, cast their net widely geographically and think carefully about whether the university route is the best route for them.

References: The Guardian