As teenagers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland begin to find out their A-level results, universities are reporting a fall in the number of places so far allocated.
A drop in applications for university is expected to mean a “buyer’s market” with many courses still available.
There have been 416,000 university places confirmed – down 2% at the same point last year.
Despite reforms, A-level results are expected to be similar to last year.
Changes to the qualifications system in England mean many A-levels are being decided by final exams, with no link to coursework or AS-levels.
But the national results are expected to be kept similar to last year, when about a quarter of entries received top grades.
More exam changes
With a reduction in applications, a demographic dip in the number of 18-year-olds and uncertainty about the results from the new A-level system, many universities, including in the prestigious Russell Group, will still have places on offer.
The number of students from European Union countries has fallen by 3% compared with last year.
There are suggestions that universities could have to accept lower entry grades in the competition for students.
This year’s exams in England reflect the latest phase of changes to qualifications, which have cut down on coursework and become “decoupled” from AS-levels.
Results for 13 subjects, including history, English, psychology, physics, chemistry and biology, will now depend on the final exams taken in the summer.
Head teachers’ leader Geoff Barton said the change would mean the “death knell” of AS-levels, with schools increasingly likely to abandon the exam, which would no longer count towards the A-level grade.
AS-level entries have fallen by more than 40% this year, and Mr Barton, leader of the ASCL head teachers’ union, said he regretted this “narrowing” of options.
He also warned of rushed changes to qualifications, and said that reducing the importance of AS-levels for university applications meant arts subjects such as drama were being “squeezed out of the curriculum”.
Mr Barton added that a lot of people were also receiving their “vocational results”, and “this is their day and we don’t want it to be overshadowed by criticism”.
But the exam reforms, and the move to final exams rather than modules, were defended by John Blake, head of education at the Policy Exchange think tank.
“The changes to A-levels were designed to end a culture of endlessly resitting examinations, which was as painful and time-consuming for teachers as it was for students,” he said.
“It led to less teaching time and made it harder to get a proper grasp of the subject.
“We should all be pleased that it is over.”
‘Fairness’ in results
There have been concerns from pupils who have been the first to take these revised exams.
A survey of A-level students from the Student Room website found worries about a lack of textbooks and practice papers for the new style of exams.
Even if there is volatility in results for individual schools, the overall results are likely to be kept comparable to last year’s.
Sally Collier, head of the exam watchdog, Ofqual, said the regulator would “ensure fairness between students over time and between boards”.
“This is especially important when qualifications change,” she added.
Last year, 25.8% of entries were awarded an A* or A, down by 0.1% on the previous year. The overall pass rate remained unchanged at 98.1%.
There are also employers who are increasingly recruiting directly from A-level students, rather than only through graduate trainees.
Financial firm Grant Thornton says its intake of A-level students has almost quadrupled compared with six years ago – with 70 places on offer this year, representing more than a quarter of the company’s intake of trainees.
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