Queen Mary rushes to fill 200 empty student places as AAB reforms leave Russell Group in the lurch

Pic: Ivan Lian

Queen Mary, University of London, is racing to fill 200 empty student places on the first day of term after government reforms left major universities dangerously undersubscribed.

As of Monday QMUL stood to lose vital tuition fees unless it could fill empty spaces spread across humanities and social sciences courses, while Goldsmiths, University of London, fulfilled its admissions target.

The college, in Mile End, was among 7 out of 24 universities in the elite Russell affected. QMUL said admissions for courses in medicine, dentristy, economics, finance, science and engineering were now on target.

Figures released by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service showed the number of mainstream students set to start higher education courses was down by 62,000 – a drop of 17%.

QMUL was still listed on the UCAS website as available for clearing, meaning students rejected from other universities can apply for leftover places there.

Lecturers’ leaders blamed the drop on higher fees of up to £9,000 per year, which come into effect starting this academic year, and changes to the rules about how many students each university can accept.

Wendy Piatt, the Director General of the Russell Group, said: ““The first year of the new funding system was always going to be challenging and uncertain. But the Government’s core and margin policy of re-distributing places, largely on the basis of lower fees, meant universities had fewer places to offer to students with grades below AAB and this has had a knock-on impact.”

Under reforms introduced by the coalition, universities can take on as many UK students as they wish who achieve grades equivalent to AAB or higher at A-level – but heavy fines for admitting extra students below this level remained in place.

9% of core places for non-AAB students on all courses – excluding ones deemed ‘strategically important’ – were cut for this year, with 20,000 being redistributed among universities willing to charge lower fees.

Elite universities with high proportions of AAB students saw especially drastic cuts to their non-AAB allowance, meaning they could not make up shortfalls by lowering standards.

Piatt said: “If universities couldn’t recruit enough high-calibre students, they risked losing funding – but if they recruited too many students with grades ABB or below they risked substantial fines.

“The difficult choices faced by admissions departments this year means students who wanted to attend a leading university and had the right qualifications have not been able to even though those universities wanted to accept them.”

The new system was intended to allow high-end ‘selective’ universities to expand, but Piatt claimed it had the perverse effect of reducing applicants.

That, combined with the massive drop in university applications and an unexpected fall in the number of students achieving AAB and above, has conspired to leave universities in the lurch.

Advice group Supporting Professionalism in Admissions warned in July that while the number of AAB offers being made had risen, many students might not achieve those grades.

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said: “Fewer students at UK universities this year represents the predictable failure of the Government’s attempt to create an artificial market for the most highly-qualified students.

“At a time of high unemployment, we should be making it easier for people to get to university, not pricing them out.”

Universities minister David Willetts said in a speech at Keele University last week that temporary problems in admissions were “inevitable” with such wide-ranging reforms, “which are intended to take greater account of student choice.”

Willetts said: “Last year’s figure was partly artificially inflated by fewer people taking a gap year. But I still think we will have very high numbers of students going to university.”

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