Students could face competition for university places amid capacity pressures

Some top universities could limit numbers in certain subject areas due to infrastructure pressures, president of UUK suggests.

Students seeking places at the most selective universities could face tougher competition for places on some courses this summer due to pressures on infrastructure, a university sector chief has suggested.

Professor Sir Steve West, president of Universities UK (UUK), which represents 140 institutions, said some top universities could limit numbers in subject areas as they may not have enough accommodation, specialist teaching spaces or staffing following major expansion during the Covid years.

Speaking ahead of A-level results day in just over a fortnight, Sir Steve suggested that some Russell Group universities may not offer as many vacancies on courses in clearing this year because of capacity issues.

The Russell Group includes many of the most selective and research-intensive universities in the UK – including the universities of Oxford and Cambridge.

Sir Steve told the PA news agency: “In the first round of Covid, what you saw happening was universities had made offers, students then achieved the offers so there was very little drop-off and therefore research-intensive universities expanded significantly their undergraduate student population.

“Now that’s put pressure on their infrastructure, their staffing, and what they’re trying to do is just to rebalance that back into some sense of normality.”

In England, A-level and GCSE results are set to return to pre-pandemic levels this year after Covid led to an increase in top grades in 2020 and 2021, with results based on teacher assessments instead of exams.

When asked whether the cohort of students currently waiting for results this year could face tougher competition at Russell Group universities than in previous years, Sir Steve told PA: “Possibly in some subject areas where there may be pressures on accommodation or type of teaching spaces, environments or staffing.

“Science, medicine and dentistry are the obvious ones because of workshops and laboratories.”

Earlier this month, Ucas and Ofqual bosses told students waiting for their results to be “mindful” that the most selective courses “do get filled quickly”.

The exams regulator and university admissions service added that there will be competition for places due to a growth in 18-year-olds in the population.

Clearing has become an increasingly popular route to securing a university place in recent years, with students by-passing the main application system in favour of finding a course directly through clearing.

It is also used by students who may have changed their mind about their course or university and want to find somewhere new, or those who have done better than expected and want to trade places.

When asked whether Russell Group universities are likely to have fewer vacancies in clearing this summer, Sir Steve said: “I think that might well be the case in areas where they are either restricted on their student numbers because of highly popular courses and they’re restricted – medicine and dentistry are always the common ones.

“Some research-intensive universities will be limiting numbers into other areas and that’s purely and simply because of capacity in the institutions.

“If you imagine what’s happened over the past couple of years, especially in the research-intensives, there’s been massive expansion because of the difficulty in predicting grades.”

Sir Steve, who is also vice-chancellor of the University of the West of England (UWE) in Bristol, is handing over the presidency of UUK in August to Professor Dame Sally Mapstone, vice-chancellor of the University of St Andrews.

In a message to students ahead of results day, Sir Steve added: “There will be places available in UK universities. They may not be in your first choice university but you will be able to find a university that works for you and allows you to study what you want to study.”

Dr Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group, said: “While competition for places at top universities remains high, there is a welcome increase in the proportion of students holding a firm offer from their preferred university this year.

“This reflects increased confidence in offer making by institutions as school exam grading returns to the pre-pandemic profile.

“It’s not unusual for higher tariff universities like those in the Russell Group to have fewer courses than other universities in clearing.

“However, most Russell Group universities have courses available in clearing this year, across a range of subjects, as they have done in past years.”

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