The boost has created losers as well as winners. At top tier universities, enrolment is up by 11 per cent from 2019, while it is up 1 per cent at mid tier institutions © Kay Roxby/Alamy

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UK universities are heading for a “bumper year” of new admissions, according to preliminary figures, defying warnings of a downturn because of coronavirus.

Data from the University and College Admissions Service analysed by DataHE, a consultancy, indicates that 22 days after A-level results 508,090 applicants had accepted places at universities across the UK, an increase of 3.5 per cent compared with the same time in 2019.

The figures put the sector, which feared a sharp fall in admissions as a result of the pandemic, on course for a record year. But experts warn that final numbers remain uncertain and universities still face months of volatility.

The boost in admissions is partly down to the continued enthusiasm of foreign students for studying in the UK. International recruitment has so far increased by 1.7 per cent to a record 71,400 this year, in spite of warnings the pandemic would reduce demand.

Line chart of Number of new students (rebased to 100) showing International admissions have increased at UK universities

But the main reason for the higher numbers is the jump in A-level grades after the government’s eleventh hour U-turn on results last month, when it dropped those moderated by exam regulator Ofqual in favour of the more generous “centre-assessed” marks awarded by teachers.

This, coupled with the dropping of a government cap in student numbers for top universities, has left a larger than usual proportion of school leavers with the grades needed for university, with the number of 18-year olds going into higher education increasing by 5 per cent compared with 2019.

“Universities have done a brilliant job in responding to the fallout from this summer’s exams crisis, leaving the sector with unexpectedly buoyant levels of recruitment,” said Mary Curnock Cook, a former CEO of UCAS.

But the boost has created losers as well as winners. At top tier universities, enrolment is up by 11 per cent from 2019, while it is up 1 per cent at mid tier institutions. Lower tier institutions have seen virtually no change in application numbers. 

“Because the centre-assessed grades elevated the overall attainment, the currency of qualifications got devalued so it pushed everything up the system,” said Andrew Hargreaves, the co-founder of DateHE. 

This left lower-tier institutions with a “deficit” of students, according to Mr Hargreaves, who added that some institutions have seen their pool of potential students decrease by 50 per cent.

Line chart of Number of  applicants (000) showing Admissions jumped most at top universities

At London Metropolitan University, around 200 students “self-released” from places they had accepted after teacher-assessed grades were accepted — around 50 per cent more than in a normal year.

“There was a lot of shifting around,” said Gary Davies, the pro vice-chancellor for student recruitment.

London Met’s diverse intake, which includes a high proportion of mature and postgraduate students, have helped it stay on track to meet its recruitment targets this year. But Mr Davies said other universities are facing a significant shortfall. “There’s definitely a squeezed middle,” he said.

More competitive universities, meanwhile, are struggling to accommodate the unexpectedly large student intake. “What you have this week is admissions and planning staff in a mad scramble to find out exactly what our needs on different courses are going to be, how much accommodation do we need, what’s the capacity for extra curricular activities and so on,” said Erik Lithander, pro vice-chancellor for global engagement at Bristol University. 

One of the UK’s most sought after universities, Bristol has admitted several hundred more students than usual since the A-level grades were announced. The increase is manageable, but logistically challenging given social distancing requirements, said Dr Lithander.

But he warned that the numbers are not confirmed, as many students have not made a final decision about whether they will attend. “It’s not until the students actually walk through the door that we actually know who’s coming or not,” he said.

Nick Hillman, the director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, agreed that the final size of the intake will remain unclear for some time. “The real uncertainty is around international students and postgraduate students. We don’t know exactly how many international students will turn up until they actually turn up.”

He added that given the disruption of coronavirus, it is likely that dropout rates could be higher than average this year.

Vanessa Wilson, the chief executive of the Universities Alliance which represents technical universities, does not expect to have a clear idea of the admissions impact until next spring. “Taking into account January starts, postgraduates, and students changing their minds we may not have a full picture until March next year,” she said. 

The government has committed extra funding for more expensive courses, such as engineering or nursing, at universities with large intakes this year and has dropped restrictions on student numbers for those which involve work placements.

But the situation for those with a shortfall in student numbers is less clear. In July the government published details of rescue funding for struggling universities, but made clear that any bailout would come with tough conditions. Sector leaders are now pushing for a less onerous settlement.

University leaders also fear the government is underestimating the resources needed for the sustainability of the sector. They point out that while the number of 18-year-olds in the UK hit a low this year, from 2021 it will begin to rise and is projected to increase 27 per cent in the next decade.

“The sector still had a bumper year despite the demographic low,” said Mr Hargreaves. “We have a surge in demand coming.”

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