Students seeking a place at university this year have been warned it is likely to be “more competitive” as the number of courses available could be reduced,  the head of the admissions service has said.

The warning comes ahead of results day next week when more prospective students may struggle to find degree places on the most selective courses at leading institutions through clearing this summer due to uncertainty around teacher-assessed grades, Ucas said.

The government announced in January that students would not take national GCSE, AS and A level exams this summer, due to the impact of the pandemic on young people’s education.

Clare Marchant, Ucas’s chief executive, believes a record number of students will still take up places through clearing, but she warned that there will be “hotspots” where it could be much more competitive for applicants this year.

Nearly two in three (63%) of the UK’s top institutions have vacancies on their undergraduate programmes on the clearing website.

But Ms Marchant has urged prospective students receiving their grades on Tuesday to make a decision about courses “in a matter of days” rather than waiting weeks as she expects the system to be “active”.

She said:  “At the most selective institutions at the most selective courses it is likely to be a bit more competitive because there might be slightly reduced courses in clearing, albeit there will still be thousands.”

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.

Warning over GCSE. AS and A-Level grades

The Department for Education (DfE) and Ofqual worked together on alternative arrangements to deliver grades this summer that reflect students’ performance accurately, allow them to progress to the next stage of education, training or employment, and make sure the results are as robust and fair as possible.

Following a consultation, the DfE and Ofqual announced that grades would be determined by teachers, based on a range of evidence like mock exams, coursework, class tests and more.

But Ms Marchant warned that some top universities may be “cautious” to offer places on their selective courses through clearing this year after this summer’s exams were cancelled due to the pandemic.

The Ucas chief executive said: “I think it would be disingenuous of me not to point out that for those most selective courses at the most selective institutions it is likely to be more competitive.

“There will be thousands of courses from higher tariff institutions in clearing, but they are likely to be slightly down on previous years.”

She added that the uncertainty around grades – as well as an increased demand from UK 18-year-olds and international students – may lead to greater competition for places.

Less choice through clearing

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) think tank, also believes there could be less choice in clearing at Russell Group universities this year due to the introduction of teacher-assessed grades.

He said: “There is a lot of competition at the hardest-to-reach institutions. Some uber-selective universities that cannot easily expand need to be careful they do not over-recruit and will behave accordingly.

“There are some applicants left over from last year who have places already, last year’s bulge entry cohort is still working its way through the system, international students have (in the main) kept coming against original expectations and there are just more 18-year-olds in the UK this year than last.”

He added: “For the last few years, there has been a buyer’s market, which has served applicants very well, but that is now beginning to come to an end. Market power is slipping back somewhat towards institutions.”

But Ms Marchant believes up to 90,000 applicants could still potentially find a place via clearing, compared to 83,000 last year.

She said: “I would say it’s still a good year for clearing. Are there going to be hotspots potentially where it is much more competitive? Absolutely.”