Today (10 August) marks A-level results day in the UK, and the COVID student generation has been marked via teacher-assessed grades for the second consecutive year. The results overall appear to be positive, with a record number of students earning places on undergraduate study programmes across the UK. According to Ucas data, when compared to 2020, an additional 30,000 UK-domiciled applicants have secured a place at university this year.
While STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics)-based subjects have enjoyed a story of success, seeing a 6% increase in A-level entries – including a necessary surge in entries from girls – the story is not so bright for the sector’s efforts to widen participation, with the university admissions service warning that the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students has grown.
Today, 388,230 students in the UK discovered a university accepted them onto a full-time undergraduate course – 245,330 of them (34.1%) are 18-year-olds collecting A-level and higher results this morning. A total of 695,00 A-levels were rewarded, along with 340,000 technical qualifications.
“After around a decade of widening participation progress, albeit slow, it is disappointing to see it stall” – Clare Marchant, Ucas
Including 47,200 international students, a record 435,430 students are now placed on a full-time undergraduate course, up 5% on results day 2020. A record 395,770 of them have a place on their first choice – up 8% from 365,500 in 2020.
As records fell, Ucas chief executive Clare Marchant commended the higher education (HE) sector, which had “been flexible with their decisions to accommodate as many students as possible onto their first choice of course”.
The news came as the body representing exam boards revealed record grade inflation.
The Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) revealed that 44.8% of A-level students achieved an A* or A – up from 36.5% in 2020. The figures mean that the proportion of students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland achieving a top grade at A-level has risen by almost 75% since 2019 when conventional examinations were most recently set. Exam boards checked 15% of grades submitted – but altered just 1%. Results from Scotland are expected soon.
Widening participation progress stalls
Despite the record number of young people entering HE this autumn, the gap between the most advantaged and least advantaged has grown after years of gradual improvement.
Ucas uses POLAR4 to measure improvements in access and participation. Students in Quintile 1 are considered the least advantaged based on the percentage of young people from their neighbourhoods that access HE. Students in Quintile 5 are considered the most advantaged.
A fifth (20.7%) of 18-year-olds in the UK in Quintile 1 found a place this year: they were two-and-a-half times less likely to have done so than 18-year-olds from Quintile 5 (48.4%). The figures are both new records – last year, 18.6% of Quintile 1 and 42.5% of Quintile 5 school-leavers found a place at university on results day.
It means that 26,640 18-year-olds from the least advantaged areas and 82,390 from the most advantaged areas secured a place – up 3,450 (6%) and 12,770 (10%) on last year respectively.
Marchant commented: “After around a decade of widening participation progress, albeit slow, it is disappointing to see it stall, though this should be seen in light of record numbers of students from disadvantaged backgrounds being accepted.
“We know that many young people are looking at all of their options, with over three-quarters of those who haven’t applied through Ucas saying they’re interested in an apprenticeship. Through our trusted, engaging, and timely information and advice, such as our CareerFinder service, we’re helping everyone discover what their next step could be.”
In response to to today’s results, Carole Willis, chief executive of the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), observed the “unprecedented period of disruption” young people have experienced over the last two years, also praising the “incredible levels of determination and tenacity from teachers, pupils and parents”.
In response to the widening participation gap, Willis urged: “It is essential this cohort of young people us supported to plug the gaps of any missed learning and to make successful transitions to the next stages of their education or employment career.”
This year’s entries saw a 5.79% rise in female A-level participants for STEM-focused programmes, including a 13.02% increase in computing – a subject in which more than a quarter of female students achieved an A*, up from 17.8% in 2020, and just 3,7% in 2019.
However, despite an increase of more than 20% in the number of young women studying computing last year, growth has fallen to 13% over the last 12 months; but overall, the percentage of female computing students remains virtually unchanged (14.6% vs 14.4%).
“However, beyond the usual backdrop of celebrations and commiserations, echoes the shared sentiment: ‘we made it through'” – Agata Nowakowska, Skillsoft
On this year’s results, Agata Nowakowska, area VP at edtech company Skillsoft, commented: “With exams cancelled for a second year running, 18 months of lockdowns and homeschooling, and the day itself having been brought forward to allow time for students to contest grades – A-level results day undoubtedly looks a little different this year. However, beyond the usual backdrop of celebrations and commiserations, echoes the shared sentiment: ‘we made it through’.”
Nowakowska notes that entries from young women to A-level STEM subjects across the UK have grown by more than a third in the last decade, lauding the “fantastic” upward trajectory in female STEM uptake, evidenced in this year’s results.
“Continued education and action has been instrumental in inspiring this increase,” added the VP. “So too has the ever-growing list of female role models pioneering change.”