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Articles > September, 01, 2010

Welcome To The Admissions Lottery!

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The university admissions system is unfair. It helps those applicants who have the correct predicted grades (regardless of whether those grades are good or bad). And it ultimately lets down those students whose grade predictions are wrong, even if they achieve great grades in the end. This gamble is surely the antithesis of a fair admissions system and it has to change.

As the demand for university places continues to grow, the number of disappointed applicants who don’t get placed has surged to 186,000 this year. Overall, the number of applicants has risen dramatically from 481,854 last year to 674,000, and the penalties for universities that exceed their intake quota has only heightened the competition for fewer places.

In the past, prospective undergraduates who didn’t achieve their first or second choices have been reassured by the clearing ‘safety net’. And even then, some students who would fall just short of the required entry grades were helped over the line to secure a place. But sadly, due to the exceptional demand for remaining places this year, many capable young people have been denied the opportunity of a place at university. And by failing to strategically utilise their UCAS insurance place they have ended up with nothing. Had these applicants targeted an insurance course with lower grade requirements, they would have had a more realistic chance of attaining at least their second choice. This must serve as a warning for future applicants, and perhaps it should be the responsibility of UCAS to highlight the purpose of the insurance choice more emphatically.

I consider myself fortunate not having to rely on clearing. I achieved the required grades for a BEng (Hons) course in Civil Engineering at Strathclyde University, and my unconditional offer made my sixth year at school much more enjoyable and less stressful. Those who have successfully attained a university place should be congratulated, but what about the 186,000 who weren’t as fortunate? In particular, where does this leave those who achieved grades high enough to merit entry on to a range of courses?

It’s all very well suggesting that these students take a Gap year, or choose an alternative college course, or even reapply the following year; but these are often considered to be second best options, especially for students who achieved ‘A’ grades. This pool of unsuccessful applicants bears no relationship with meritocracy, but rather the gamble of university and course choice, based on predicted grades.

Now consider how bitter those unsuccessful applicants must feel when they learn that the UK average drop-out rate after the first year in 2009 was 8%. The situation in Scotland was even worse where of the 29,625 degree entrants, 9.9% dropped out by the end of the first year*. The void left by an excess of 2,900 students leaving the system in Scotland alone obviously leaves spare course capacity. Shouldn’t the government acknowledge this growing drop-out rate and allow universities to accommodate those who have been turned away from higher education?

While demand continues to exceed supply year on year, and drop-out rates persist, surely the government could adopt a more flexible approach to the university admission policy. I think that if the government allowed universities to offer drop-out contingency placing to exceptional students who had failed to gain a place it would increase the opportunities that are available and enable the UK skills base to grow. Why should the university doors be slammed in the face of those who have worked hard and have been encouraged to stay within the education system by the government?

*Source –

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  1. Phil,

    Jonathan. Although I agree with the main crux of your argument, can I point a couple of things out? Yes, we all know the huge demand for university places is growing year on year, but this was common knowledge years ago. Thus ramping up the competition for a place at university and how hard one works to achieve that place. To call it a lottery is naive but I am taking your youth into consideration on this point. Personal statements and academic references decide who is offered a place on a chosen course at their chosen university, by the very tutors and professionals who will deliver the course to that student. Those tutors know that a percentage of offers they make will not be taken up, possibly due to lesser grades being obtained by the student or the student choosing to accept another offer later, as I did, but they factor all this in. To argue that ?…but what about the 186,000 who weren’t as fortunate? In particular, where does this leave those who achieved grades high enough to merit entry on to a range of courses?? Is outrageous, you have gone from calling it a lottery to saying it?s a rite of passage! As Martin {replies} points out it is a privilege to attend university not a given, and you yourself mention that your final year was ?much more enjoyable and less stressful.? Due to your deserved unconditional offer. My experience was that when the offers started coming in, my fellow students thought university was ?in the bag? so to speak, but a lot had a shock and are now licking their wounds as a result. For myself, my offer just spurred me on to do better. Jonathan, I wish you every success on your course but it time to start thinking about yourself and your course, oh, and enjoying what will become one of your fondest memories of your life!!xx

  2. Jenny

    Just as an example most of the people who did well at GCSE didnt get into university because they got predicted grades which are unrealistic. I am doing a degree in the subject I got a C in because my A-level teacher wouldn’t predict me a high enough grade to do the subject I got an A* in. But my uni is great and my C really doesn’t bother me now i’m here because I know that it was bad-teaching which led to it. The university admissions wouldn’t let me change because our uni is so oversubscribed. Looking at points is a better way after the introduction of the A* because it means there are more levels attainable. Therefore by looking at points you get an average of grades. But UCAS should only include your studies. Your personal statement is for telling your university that you are a grade 8 pianist.

  3. Monique

    A friend is doing a course in Biomedical Science and within a couple of weeks knew it wasn’t for her, but because she knew she would have to take a year out to be able to reapply she is continuing on her course, and at extra expense, due to not being able to get a loan for a second undergrad degree, will be returning almost immediately to Univeristy to study for a primary education degree. I believe she is a fool for sticking at the course but I respect her for still working as hard as ever and maintaining a decent grade average. Yes it will be the long and more expensive route for her, but she has learnt the hard way that just because school are forcing you to apply, does not mean that you should take up an offer if you are not completely happy in your heart of hearts.

  4. Matthew

    If you do stay on at sixth form after school, isn’t this because you want to go into higher education? So I agree that there should be some way of allowing more people to go. But if you said to someone that they could go to university if someone else dropped out, then this would leave them hanging on a string for a year or two just waiting for that confirmation of a place. If they did get in then they would?ve missed a year of the course. And if they didn’t then that would?ve been a year wasted doing nothing wouldn’t it? Or if you did let these students go to university based on the idea that some would drop out, this would create huge classes of students, and maybe more of them would find it hard to fit in therefore persuading even more to drop out leaving the universities as a bigger pinpoint for the media? I think it would be very hard to implement this idea of letting more people go to university assuming people are going to drop out.

  5. Sapphera

    It’s not through lightheeartedness that a lot of them drop out, although yes it is sad that these people with high grades don’t get into uni the people who did get in got in because of their good grades as well. Do these figures take into account people who drop out for medical or family reasons? You’ve got to remember that this is the first time most of these students have been away from home and there is a percentage that’ve gone too far and need to go back to their home and a safe environment. I know a handful of people that dropped out because the course wasn’t right or the uni wasn’t right, but what they did was go somewhere else and try again. They count towards this ‘dropout percentage’ even though they continue in higher education. So although you have those figures, do they actually represent the spaces that need filling or rather are there a lot fewer spaces and this is just the medias attempt to lead another outcry from the public because they are trying to give students more bad press.

  6. Martin

    It is deeply regrettable that so many talented students are being turned away from university places that they have worked so hard for two or more years to obtain. At the time of writing I am about to start my second year at uni and still feel very privileged to be there. Demand for university places has never been greater but should everyone go to uni? Upon starting uni I was helpfully reminded by my parents that back in their day “only the top few people went to uni”. I must agree that I was appalled by the system in my sixth form which advised every student to apply for a place at uni through UCAS regardless of whether they wanted to go or not. In particular one of my best friends was forced into applying against his wishes by teachers and his tutor. This is the unfortunate bi product of OFSTED which rewards schools based on numbers of students who go to uni. Predicted grades are not the ideal basis for assessing an application. I believe the solution to this problem is to let people apply through UCAS as normal and guarantee all students their place at uni if they achieve mostly A*, A and B grades. Particularly if for example a student gets an A in A level biology and then wants to go to uni to study biological science or similar courses. Uni should not be the only option available to students in further education. Upon leaving sixth form or college students should be given the option to do long term work experience/ job training in a relevant field.

  7. Isabel Morrison

    I completely agree, it winds me up something fierce when you finally get into a university to find that the other students around you are so light hearted about being there and then drop out when the work gets too hard for them, you then think back to your friends who were denied a place, the spot being given to those fair-weather drop outs!!