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Record A-level results amid university fears

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 19 August 2010

Sixth-formers score another record-breaking year of results but could struggle to find university courses as a squeeze on applicants and spending cuts leave centres under immense pressure, discovers Social Affairs Correspondent Victoria Macdonald.

A-level exam results: One in 12 A-level exams are awarded an A* grade (Getty)

One in 12 A-level exams were awarded the new A* grade as sixth-formers scored another record-breaking year of results.

A total of 69,302 exam entries (8.1 per cent) were awarded the new top grade, which exceeds predictions that around 7 per cent would get an A*.

The figures, published by the Joint Council for Qualifications, showed more than one in four entries (27 per cent) were awarded an A grade - up from 26.7 per cent last year.

Overall, the pass rate rose for the 28th year in a row, with 97.6 per cent of entries awarded at least an E, a rise from 97.5 per cent in 2009.

More from Channel 4 News on A-levels and the 'university crunch'
Live studio discussion between students and education experts
- FactCheck: Are there more university places than ever before?
- A-level students: university is not the only option
- University clearing process: top tips

While many sixth-formers from across England, Wales and Northern Ireland celebrated receiving A-level results this morning many still face a struggle to win a place at university. Predictions suggest that tens of thousands - including sixth-formers and mature students - could miss out due to a pressure on places.

A record 660,000 people had applied to start full-time undergraduate courses by the end of June. Only 482,000 places were awarded in 2009.

Universities are face a cap on places and fines if they over-recruit. Many have also warned of courses being axed due to cuts in budgets.

Many of the UK's top universities have warned they are already full, and the clearing process, which matches students with available courses, is expected to be short.

A-level applicants: universities under pressure
They are calling it the perfect storm, writes Social Affairs Correspondent Victoria Macdonald. There are more students applying for university than ever before but funding has fallen, there is a cap for the second year in a row on places, and to add to people's woes, there is a recession.

As A-level students receive their results today there are warnings that universities are under intense pressure. Analysts say it is the worst it has been for two decades. The government appears to be sanguine.

Universities Minister David Willetts said he was sorry if some people missed out on places but that they could go off and get some practical experience but try again next year. Without wanting to be repetitive, there is a recession and high youth unemployment, so it is not clear that there will be much practical experience on offer.

The vice chancellor of Liverpool's John Moores University, Professor Michael Brown, said they were having to make £9m worth of savings this year. He said he had told staff to prepare for uncertainty and that was the worst part of what was happening.

"There have already been £1bn of cuts last year and probably more this year," he told Channel 4 News.

All this comes off the back of the previous administration encouraging more than 50 per cent of students to go into tertiary education. The coalition government says it does not like targets so will not commit to the 50 per cent but yesterday the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said he wants more poorer students to go to university and he released figures showing that of 80,000 students in one year who were eligible for free school dinners, only 45 went to Oxbridge. That, he says, has to change.

Universities and Science Minister David Willetts has admitted that youngsters, many with top grades, face disappointment but he insisted to Channel 4 News that the government was providing more opportunity for young people than every before.

"Last autumn I made a pledge, when we were in opposition, that we would deliver 10,000 extra places and we've delivered that pledge," the universities minister said.

"We have allocated the funding for more places than ever before. We're doing our best even in tough times to create more opportunities with them. We are trying to provide more training and educational opportunities for young people in Britain than ever before."

Mr Willetts defended the amount of places available to students saying university "has always been a competitive process."

Dr Wendy Piatt, Director General of the Russell Group, which represents 20 elite research-intensive universities, said tough choices had to be made to avoid spreading funds too thinly - risking "short-changing" students.

"When universities are already dealing with £1bn in cuts there are tough choices to be made. It is simply not realistic to think that the country could afford - within the current Higher Education funding system - to offer a properly funded university place to everyone who would like one. In a tight fiscal climate, maintaining the quality of the student experience must be a greater priority than expanding the number of places," she told Channel 4 News.

Meanwhile, Mr Willetts said it is wrong to think that alternative higher education routes such as studying part-time and apprenticeships were "lowering your horizons".

"In the past, 50 per cent of people applying for university used to get a place - we're now up to 65 or 70 per cent," he told Channel 4 News.

"No government has said we can guarantee everybody a place at university but what we're trying to do is say alongside university there are other opportunities as well. I think it is better for young people and for social mobility that we all recognise that there is more than one route in to a well paid job and a successful career than going to university.

"So alongside the expansion of university places its right to put resources into expanding other opportunities like those 50,000 extra apprenticeship places."

A-level results: the agony and the ecstasy
The days before you get your A-level results, like the days before you take the exams themselves, are agony, writes student Fred Mikardo-Greaves for Channel 4 News.

You want to get it all over and done with as quickly as possible, like ripping off a plaster, but at the same time you never, ever want to know what you got and would much rather continue getting up at 1pm and watching back episodes of Jeremy Kyle until 6pm thanks.

Having a grade requirement for a university place only adds to the pressure, because you know that if you should fall short, then the next few years of your life will take a completely different course. Indeed, you may not end up taking a course at all, with competition for places tighter than ever this year, so it really is an all-or-nothing situation.

Read the article in full here

A-level changes
More than 300,000 students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland received results today, the first year that sweeping changes to A-levels have come into effect.

As well as the introduction of the new A* grade, students sat four modules instead of six, and answered "stretch and challenge" questions designed to allow them to fully demonstrate their knowledge.

To win an A* a student has to score an A overall, plus at least 90 per cent in each of their papers in the second year of their course.

The figures show that girls got more A* grades overall than boys (8.3 per cent compared with 7.9 per cent), but boys got more A* grades in science and maths-based subjects. The highest percentage of A* grades was awarded for further maths where 29.9 per cent of the 11,682 candidates received the mark.

Andrew Hall, chief executive of the examining board AQA said the new way of assessing students was not designed to make A-levels harder.

"There is a myth to slay here: the A-level was not meant to get harder," he said.

"What was introduced was some more complex questions to show the really strong students how much better they could perform within the A-grade."

Jim Sinclair, director of the Joint Council for Qualifications, welcomed the results.

"This is a day for celebration. The results reflect the hard work and dedication of students and their teachers, supported by students' parents.

"The successful introduction of the new A* grade and the increased entries for science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects are good news."

Tips for those facing clearing:
If you are one of the unlucky ones who fails to secure a university place, you can enter into the clearing process with UCAS (for more information on clearing click here). Professor Ebdon gives Channel 4 News his top tips:

1. Can you be flexible on your chosen subject? There may well be more vacancies in the 'stem' subjects of science, technology, maths and engineering.

2. Can you be flexible with location? There may be more places on offer for your chosen subject at another university.

3. Consider becoming a part-time student. Part-time students make up between 42-48 per cent of all students in the UK and are not subject to the government's 'cap'. You can combine a part-time Open University degree course with a part-time job.

4. Take a Gap Year, but make sure you do something useful to enhance your university application for next year. "Don't just wander around the world. Do something that develops your leadership, iniative and new skills - particularly the 'soft skills': interpersonal, communication skills, that school leavers often lack," Prof Ebdon said.

More tips and advice on clearing from the experts

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