How will changes to admissions affect university applicants in 2012?

As Nicola Dandridge pointed out in this blog in June, “this summer promises to be a voyage of discovery for students, parents, universities and policy makers with uncertainty the name of the game”.

The university admissions process has received a lot of attention, so now may be a good time to look more closely at what has changed this year and give a clearer picture of what this might mean for applicants. 

To begin with it is worth emphasising what won’t change this summer.

  • Considerably more people will apply to university than there are places available. 2012 is no different to previous years. Indeed we are likely to see the second highest number of applicants on record. So the process will  remain competitive, with popular courses continuing to attract many more applicants than there are places.
  • Universities will continue to operate ‘fair admissions processes’, that is, treat applicants on an individual basis.
  • Entry to university will not be based solely on the qualifications achieved.  As we have shown in previous blogs, admissions tutors will continue to take potential and other factors into consideration.
  • Gaining admissions to university is a competitive process. It’s not uncommon to hear about applicants who met the course requirements but didn’t get offered a place. It comes as a surprise to many people that just because an applicant is predicted the grades stated in the entry requirements for a particular course, they are not necessarily guaranteed an offer from that university. The entry requirements are simply the minimum requirement or indication of a ‘typical offer’.
  • UCAS will be operating Adjustment again this year. Adjustment allows applicants who have met and exceeded their conditional firm offer (and who have been accepted on to that course) to look for a place at an alternative institution whilst still holding their confirmed place.

But a few things are very different this year and, as with any new system, it’s difficult to predict exactly what will happen.

Student finance
We have heard a lot about the changes to student finance for 2012. Applicants now face a much more complex picture in terms of tuition fee levels and financial support across the UK.  It’s important that applicants seek advice and guidance when making decisions.  MoneySavingExpert’s Martin Lewis has some great guides for student finance in England. This will be particularly useful if seeking a place during Clearing.

Also, it’s important to point out that applicants don’t have to wait for a confirmed place at university to apply for student loans. Applicants may want to apply for their loan now, to prevent any delay in funding.

Changes to rules governing how many students English universities can take
Contrary to popular belief, universities cannot simply admit as many students as they can accommodate. The number of students they can take is set by government so it can control the cost of tuition fee loans and maintenance support provided for students. Each university is given a limit on the number of undergraduate students it can admit and if it goes over this number it is heavily fined.

The controls on numbers differ across the different parts of the UK so this blog focuses on UK and EU applicants applying to English universities.

What is different this year is that the government will let universities admit as many students as they want, provided they have achieved grades at AAB or higher at A-level or equivalent (from now on referred to as AAB+). UCAS has a useful table on their website to help applicants determine whether their results apply to the government’s criteria for AAB+ or equivalent.

However, as we noted earlier, getting a university place is still a competitive process. Achieving AAB+ will not automatically mean an applicant will get the place of their choice. Universities are also aware of the importance of ensuring a high quality student experience – it would be detrimental to have overcrowded labs or seminars, for instance. Universities take these factors into account when considering whether to increase their numbers.

For applicants not expecting grades at AAB+ the situation should be much the same as last year. If an applicant has met the conditions of their offer they will be given a place.  If not, or an applicant fails to get any offers, but can be flexible and has reasonable exam results, then there is still a good chance that they will find another course through Clearing.  All vacancies will be published between mid-August and late-September on the UCAS website as usual.

The freeing up of places at the top may affect applicants who just miss out on their predicted AAB+. We could see a situation in which applicants who have obtained an offer at this level may find it more difficult this year to secure their firm or insurance choice, if they do not achieve AAB+.  This is because a university may have less scope than in previous years to accept an applicant at lower grades because the places below AAB, which are controlled, may already be full.

If an applicant is in this situation they can still apply through the UCAS Clearing process, though it is not possible to predict how many places will be available.

If an applicant is thinking about re-applying next year, the government has set no limits on the number of applicants universities can admit with grades at ABB+ or equivalent. If an applicant obtains ABB+ and is unsuccessful this year but is offered a deferred place they may wish to consider whether to take this or whether to find another course through Clearing.

Kim Catcheside picks up many of these issues in her Guardian Higher Education Network article. She looks at a number of possible outcomes including the possibility that an applicant may not have a second insurance choice to fall back on if all the offers they hold are either equal or higher than their first choice. The UCAS consultation earlier this year showed that on average 42% of applicants fall into this case.

This all sounds rather complicated, but universities are aware of the potential difficulties that could arise for applicants this year. Staff in admissions offices are working hard to ensure that the process is as transparent as possible. There is also a lot of information available on the UCAS website as well as on universities’ own websites.

It is also important to remember that for the majority of students the situation will be the same as last year. If an applicant meets their offer they will get a place and if this is not the case, and they can be flexible, there is still a good chance of finding a place that suits them through Clearing. Last year 7 out of every 10 applicants secured a place.  University can transform lives and it is essential that no applicant is put off as a result of the changes this year.

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