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UCAS Statistics

Predicted vs achieved grades in the Covid era

UCAS’ release of its sector-level end of cycle data resources this week has given us an opportunity to interrogate the impact of a second year of dramatic A Level grade inflation in a new way.

Included in the dataset is a measure of difference between an applicant’s predicted and achieved grades. Plotting the distribution of this difference clearly shows the extent to which we have departed from pre-Covid precedent, with more applicants than ever before achieving or over-achieving their predicted grades.

Looking at each difference group as a proportion of the total confirms that 2021 further cemented the trend established in 2020 for the most likely outcome to be for applicants to achieve exactly (equivalent to) their predicted grades. Prior to the pandemic the most likely outcome had been slowly shifting from underperforming by one grade to underperforming by two grades.

If we look back to 2019 and split by POLAR4 quintile, we can see that the less likely those around you were to enter higher education the more likely you were to underperform your predicated grades.

Two years into awarding grades without exams and, despite a very differently shaped distribution, this trend still holds. 58% of Quintile 5 applicants (those from postcodes with the highest HE entry rates) achieved or overachieved their predicted grades, whilst only 49% of Quintile 1 applicants (those form postcodes with the lowest HE entry rates) did the same.

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UCAS Statistics

Medicine reapplicants surge

UCAS’ October deadline statistics, released this week, make for interesting reading as ever. The number of UK applicants to Medicine has risen by a further 4% after last year’s huge increase, bringing the size of the applicant pool to a new all time high.

Breaking out first time applicants from what UCAS terms ‘reapplicants’ however reveals a more complex picture. Whilst the former group have actually marginally fallen in number, the latter have driven all of the growth seen in our headline figure.

Plotting the reapplicant group as a proportion of the total UK medicine applicant pool shows a rise from 14% pre-covid to 22% now, returning the group back to the level of the previous peak seen in the 2015 cycle.

UCAS’ definition of reapplicant here doesn’t require these individuals to have applied to Medicine before, just that they have submitted an application to any course through UCAS in a previous cycle. So these aren’t necessarily those who have already been turned away by a medical school, although they will be a component of this group. Another component however, and likely the one driving this growth, will be those who previously applied for non-medicine courses but having benefitted from the increasingly generous awarding of grades in the past two years have now returned with new aspirations.

With this same grade generosity having pushed many medical schools over capacity in the 2021 cycle and their offer making in this cycle likely to be even more cautious than normal as a result, these reapplicants chances of securing a medicine place unfortunately may not be a high as they’re hoping – even if they’re sitting on top grades.

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UCAS Statistics

Measuring the deferrals hangover

As The Times reported on Monday, UCAS statistics show that this year there are a record number of placed applicants who have deferred starting their studies. Approximately 29,000 applicants placed in this cycle are deferred in total.

This isn’t just a product of a higher total number of placed applicants but instead represents a notable rise in the proportion of placed applicants deferring their studies.

This rise in the deferral rate is being driven by UK and EU domiciled applicants. Whilst UK domiciled applicants continue to be most likely to defer, their EU domiciled peers have seen the biggest jump in their likelihood to defer – no doubt connected to their changed fee status. Meanwhile applicants from outside the UK or EU have bucked the trend and reduced their deferral rate from the unprecedented high observed in 2020.

Within the UK, it is applicants from England that continue to be most likely to defer and that have contributed most to the rise in the overall UK rate, although the rate for Scottish applicants has risen also. Welsh applicants meanwhile have deferred at almost exactly the same rate as in 2020 and Northern Irish applicants are less likely to have deferred this year than in the last.

At this point it is difficult to gauge how much of this rise in deferrals is due to the preferences or concerns of applicants and how much has been manufactured by incentives to defer offered by over-subscribed institutions. It is however already clear that one of the many admissions hangovers for providers moving into the 2022 cycle will be the substantially higher number of deferred applicants on their books.

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UCAS Statistics

Grade inflation is reshaping the HE sector

The well reported inflation in A Level grades this summer, significantly above even the generosity of grading achieved in 2020 by the u-turn to issue Centre Assessed Grades, is driving a dramatic reshaping of the HE sector.

17 days out from A Level Results Day, UCAS reports that there are marginally fewer total placed applicants that at the equivalent point in 2020 – approximately 610 lower at 499,850.

The sector’s undergraduate intake is therefore due to be almost exactly as it was in 2020. Where these applicants have been placed however is a different matter. The higher tariff third of the sector has continued its dramatic growth and is now the largest component of the sector by intake for the first time.

Whilst the higher tariff group’s growth in 2020 was faster it roughly balanced with the growth of the sector overall, leaving the medium and lower tariff groups with little change in their intake overall. This year however, as higher-tariff institutions either deliberately embraced further growth or misjudged the extent to which they needed to curtail offer making to prevent it, even higher grades meant growth for the higher tariff group at the expense of the medium and lower tariff groups.

The other high level change this year has been the dramatic drop off in placed applicants from the EU, triggered by the Brexit-induced change in these applicants’ fee status and foreshadowed by the similarly dramatic fall in EU applications observed in January.

Stripping out this change and focussing only on the UK shows that whilst the medium tariff group did here achieve some growth, the higher tariff group’s growth was even more dramatic, coming in at 9.5% higher than in 2020. This leaves the higher tariff group’s intake a fifth higher in 2021 than pre-covid.

Whatever is to be done about the now pressing need to stabilise A Level grade distributions, the only way that the sector can now navigate the coming demographic surge without a capacity crisis is by finding a way to restore some balance. With many higher tariff institutions now likely to have limited capacity to grow any further for the next few years, it is the many high quality medium and lower tariff institutions that must be supported to grow in the short- and medium-term if we want to meet demand for higher education.