Tens of thousands of A-level students are at risk of losing a place at their preferred university next week after new analysis found a sharp fall in top grades compared with last year.
Amid warnings that this year’s admissions round would be “the hardest in living memory”, research suggests a fall of 10 percentage points in the number of A and A* grades in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, following the reintroduction of exams this summer.
After two years of higher average grades during the pandemic – when exams were cancelled and work was teacher-assessed – the government asked regulators to set boundaries so that grades, to be published on Thursday, would be halfway between those in 2019 and 2021, with grades to return to pre-pandemic levels in 2023.
After record results last year, when 44.8% of grades were either A or A* at A-level, the calculation is that this will fall to 35% (up from 25.5% in 2019).
While almost one in five (19.1%) grades were A* last year, this year the proportion is expected to decline to 13.5%. Similarly, the number of A* to C grades are expected to go down from 88.5% in 2021 to 82%.
The shift in results is likely to cause a major political fallout in a year that has seen four different education secretaries.
The plan for this year’s A-levels was first put in place by Gavin Williamson, who was blamed for the government’s chaotic approach to education during the pandemic. The plan is now being overseen by James Cleverly who may be given a new role when a new prime minister is appointed in September.
Labour has accused the Tories of a “miserable failure to help children recover from the pandemic” and of failing to put in place enough extra measures for this year’s exams.
One expert said this year’s experience would signal a fundamental shift that will last for a decade, as demand for higher education places remains high.
“Instead of universities competing over students, it will be students fighting over limited degree places,” said Lee Elliot Major, professor of social mobility at Exeter University.
“Thousands of students with relatively high grades are likely to be disappointed and not secure their first choices,” he added.
This year’s results are also expected to show an improvement in the performance of male candidates, who are likely to have benefited from the reintroduction of exams.
They will also reflect changing subject preferences, with psychology growing in popularity as the uptake of English continues to fall.
Prof Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham, has calculated that if each candidate drops an average of two grades due to the post-pandemic rebalancing, up to 60,000 students applying to university could be at risk of losing their preferred place.
“The 2022 A-level results are potentially the most interesting in years,” said Smithers. “The return of exams will enable us to begin to gauge the impact of teacher assessment.
“The increase in top grades has been extraordinary – they went up from 25.5% of the total in 2019 to 44.8% in 2021,” he said, adding: “Some candidates were given a false idea of their talents and will have made wrong choices, while universities could not tell applicants apart as accurately and fairly as they had been used to.
“Universities have reacted to the teacher-assessment boom in top grades by raising requirements and reducing firm offers. For many of this year’s school leavers, the hard work did not end with A-levels, but begins again on results day in the chase for the coveted places.
“As a result of bringing down the top grades, about 40,000 applicants could miss out on their first choices, although it could be as many as 60,000.”
There will nevertheless still be 80,000 more top grades than in 2019 when exams were last held and Smithers said that, though there will be pressure on top courses, there would be plenty of places elsewhere.
With the return of exams, which were reintroduced with adaptations to reflect pandemic disruption, Smithers predicted that boys will start to catch up with girls, whose results have improved with the pause in exams and the use of teacher assessment.
On subject trends, provisional figures show the numbers studying psychology have gone up 10%, making it the second most popular A-level after maths. Numbers studying English continue to fall, down by about a third since 2009 to 62,000 in 2021, with a further 8% drop in 2022.
Major said: “This year will be the hardest admissions round in living memory for many applicants – and it signals a fundamental shift that will last for a decade.”
He said this new, more competitive era of university admissions was being driven by rising numbers of 18-year-olds, a rebalancing by some universities which are reducing places after taking in additional students during Covid, and a looming recession cutting off job alternatives.
“We must do all we can to ensure that our most disadvantaged and vulnerable students aren’t unfairly elbowed out as candidates do everything possible to secure the most sought-after degrees.” He expressed concern that the gap in A-level results between state and private pupils had also widened.
“The biggest challenge for schools in the post-pandemic era will be to reduce the academic divides that have opened – failure to do so will leave a generation permanently scarred.”
Chris Hale, interim chief executive of Universities UK, which represents the higher education sector, said that most students were expected to get their first-choice course this year with plenty of high-quality courses available in clearing.
“They have taken into account that this year’s applicants will probably have a lower proportion of top grades than the last two years with the return of exams following the pandemic’s disruption. Decisions are not made on grades alone.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Ucas expects the majority of students to secure their place at their firm choice this year and in preparation our focus has been on working with universities to ensure offers reflect the grades students will receive this summer.
“Competition for places at the most selective universities has always been high and this year is no different, but there will always be lots of options for students either at another university, through clearing or high-quality vocational options that are just as prestigious and rewarding as academic routes.”