So, how is the British experiment of transferring the main cost of going to university from the State to the student going?  As the first week of the brave new world comes to an end, NIC MITCHELL investigates…

Well, it is only a few days since the release of ‘A’ level results on 16 August and probably a little too early to be sure, but the headline messages show that the new undergraduate fees of up to £9,000-a-year have frightened some students off going to university.

Applicants were down by nearly 15,000 to start with this year, but six days after the “confirmation and clearing” processes started following ‘A’ level day, a further 9,829 students have ‘withdrawn’ from the system. Universities UK figures show this is as 16% more than the same period last year.

More than fees

But there is more than higher fees at play because for the first time in years the percentage of students getting top ‘A’ level grades has not just been halted, but thrown into reverse.

The timing of this coincided with a big push by the British Coalition government to get the so-called ‘Russell Group’ group of more selective and research-based universities to take more top-flight students – those gaining three or more ‘A’ levels at top grades. At the same time the government is keeping a very tight control on the number of less qualified home students going into higher education.

To enable this to happen, a system called ‘Adjustment’ was introduced last year. This allows students gaining better ‘A’ level results than predicted to ‘trade-up’ to a more prestigious university requiring top grades. The number of students who have seized this opportunity has already doubled this year, but it is still a tiny percentage of the total applying to university – 1,157.

Waiting game

What seems to be happening is a waiting game, with students holding good – but not brilliant – ‘A’ level grades waiting for the universities to ‘blink’ and accept them with ‘near-misses’ of their predicted grades.

At the same time, some prestigious universities are waiting to see if they can entice more students holding the best ‘A’ levels before making a final decision on those who dropped a grade or two, but who applied to them first.

This has led to around 50,000 students still waiting anxiously to hear from the university they first applied to before making their next move. This is not unusual a week into the post ‘A’ level cycle – but rather unpleasant for the students caught in the middle of this ‘waiting-game’.


And for those who realise they have probably missed going to a ‘top-flight’ university because of poorer-than-expected ‘A’ level results, there is some real thinking to be done.

With fees nearly trebling this year, some may think twice before accepting a place through the ‘Clearing’ system. This tries to match students without a place with universities who still have vacancies on some of their programmes.

Studying abroad

Some students have already decided to withdraw from the race – at least for this year – and may want to consider other options: trying to find a job, re-sitting their ‘A’ levels or even going abroad to study.

There are signs that more British students are considering the ‘going abroad’ option, with suggesting that the number of UK students thinking about studying in another country going up by 122%.

But they may have left it rather late for 2012 as the academic year in many European countries starts earlier than in the UK.

Brave new world

And so, as we near the end of the first week of the brave new world of British higher education, we see that universities have accepted 7% fewer applicants through conditional or unconditional offers than last year – 383,766 compared with 414,245 by August 22.

But the number of students gaining a university place through Clearing – usually after gaining lower grades than predicted and missing out on their first choice – is up slightly. This leaves nearly 160,000 students still eligible to seek a place through Clearing – down from over 180,000 at the same point last year. As well as a further 50,000 waiting for the phone to ring, or email to arrive, from the university they applied to.

And as for the universities, they have places to fill on 25,000 courses, compared with 14,000 last year!

One marketing consultant has told the Times Higher Education magazine that he fears some universities are facing a ‘student recruitment crisis’.

But it is still early days – and as I said in an earlier blog ‘Fees rise, Applications fall and an Access Tsar row’  British higher education sometimes resembles a tale out of Alice in Wonderland, where nothing is quite as it should be!

* To keep up to date with the latest twists and turns on UK higher education, follow @HEonTap on Twitter to receive a daily update from the British press.