UK universities have demanded the government provide “significant financial support” to those institutions that look set to lose students as a result of the government’s U-turn over A-level grades.
The demands are driven by concerns that less prestigious universities could face a crippling financial shortfall as A-level pupils, whose results have been upgraded by the change in tack by ministers, reject their “insurance” offer in favour of their first-choice institutions.
In a letter seen by the Financial Times, Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK, urged Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, to ensure there would be funds available. “A number of institutions will lose out from this very late policy change and will need significant financial support from government to stabilise their finances,” he wrote.
The crunch comes as universities scramble to deal with the fallout of the government decision to scrap the original process used to calculate results and rely solely on teacher assessments, which has led to a steep year-on-year increase in top grades.
That has resulted in more students becoming eligible for their first-choice courses, prompting Mr Williamson to drop a cap on student numbers that had been introduced earlier in the year. Two sources in the admissions process warned that the new official grades may not be available to universities until the end of the week.
Less-prestigious institutions now fear they could be left with fewer students than they had planned, while high-tariff universities struggle to accommodate a sharp jump in enrolments.
Vanessa Wilson, the chief executive of University Alliance, which represents some of the institutions offering vocational qualifications, said that while some members looked to see an increase in numbers, others could lose out.
“There could be in some cases an explosion at one end, and at the other universities not being able to fill places,” she warned. “The government needs to come up with some sort of financial safety net.”
The grade uplift has presented particular problems for medical schools, which are now obliged to offer places to more students than they are permitted to accept under a strict government number cap for specialist courses, which remains in place.
The sector has also been in urgent discussions with the government, demanding a boost in funding for vocational courses in areas such as medicine and nursing, and an end to the cap on places.
Louise Kenny, pro-vice chancellor at the University of Liverpool’s School of Health and Life Sciences, said in normal years medical schools correctly estimated how many students would meet their conditional grades and would never go over the cap. “But this year it’s in complete disarray.”
Prof Kenny said without the official grades the scale of oversubscription was unclear but warned there could as many as 30 per cent more applicants eligible than there are places available across all UK medical schools.
She said the university would do “everything in its power” to ensure as many eligible students as possible could join this year, but acknowledged many may need to accept deferred places.
In order to increase the number of places for trainee doctors, the government would need to support the creation of new hospital placements and training facilities such as dissection rooms. It would also have to increase subsidies for medical training, which amounts to around £175,000 per student over the five-year course.
“We are lobbying for a really rapid injection of cash and infrastructure, as well as lifting the cap,” Prof Kenny said.
The Royal College of General Practitioners also called on the government to ensure all medical students could study, warning that a larger cohort “will have significant financial and administrative implications”.
Vocational courses such as nursing and midwifery had already seen a spike in interest during the pandemic and would now struggle to accommodate a rise in eligible students, according to a number of universities.
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The Department for Education said it was working with the health and social care department to ensure any capacity issues for regulated courses were “resolved quickly”.
Michelle Donelan, the universities minister, said she was holding meetings daily with a task force from the sector.
“We are working closely with the higher education sector to understand the challenges facing universities and provide as much support as we can,” she said.
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