'There's still room for lower grades,' say top universities

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The Independent Online

Youngsters who failed to get top-grade passes at A-level still have the chance of a place in some of Britain's most prestigious universities, a survey by The Independent on Sunday has uncovered.

Most universities are struggling to recruit enough students to fill places on science and engineering courses.

The situation is a reversal of the trend last year when thousands of students opted to go without a gap year to avoid top-up fees of up to £3,000 a year which will be introduced for the first time this autumn.

It is likely to increase the pressure on universities to offer cut-price deals on top-up fees to students, a move which has already been condemned by OFFA, the Office for Fair Access, the Government's watchdog on university admissions.

Nottingham, Leeds and Exeter universities - all three members of the prestigious Russell Group of leading research institutions - said they would be prepared to make offers to students who obtained lower-grade passes despite a record 24.1 per cent of candidates who obtained A grades in this year's exams.

Nottingham said it still had places through clearing on science and engineering courses, and that they would be available to students who obtained passes "generally in the region of B, B, B and C, C, D".

Exeter, which said it still had vacancies in engineering, computer science and biological/medicinal science, explained that its minimum grade entry requirement varied from subject to subject, but it could consider three Bs, including maths, for a bachelor of engineering course and a C in maths for a science course.

At Leeds, three B-grade passes was the minimum requirement for some of its science and engineering courses.

Other universities told The Independent on Sunday they were prepared to make offers on much-reduced qualifications with Gloucestershire saying its minimum requirement was 140 points at A-level (the equivalent of a C and a D pass), York 240 points (an average of three Cs) and London Metropolitan 160 points (two Cs).

Hull said it would offer places on "a minimum of two A-level passes" although it would expect higher qualifications.

Already there have been warnings that the drop in student numbers this year - by Friday night there were 301,000 university places confirmed compared with 309,000 at this time last year - will lead to some universities seeking to reduce their fees for clearing students.

Already there are an array of offers available, with Brunel University in Middlesex offering 50 cash scholarships of up to £2,000 for clearing students where there is no family history of going to university. But the university insists the offer is in line with OFFA's exhortation to universities to widen participation amongst disadvantaged groups.

Northumbria says it is offering "generous scholarships of up to £1,000", although it stresses these were also on offer to students offered provisional places before clearing.

Teeside University said that every student would get "at least £500" in their first year although it added: "We are not offering any specific financial incentives for students going through clearing."

Many universities said almost all their courses had filled; Gloucestershire stressed that their teaching courses had been "particularly popular" this year.

JOY AND DISAPPOINTMENT FOR OUR CLASS OF 2006

Last week we talked to six young A-level hopefuls. This is how they fared...

Mohammed Aamir Ismailjee

AGE 18

School: Beal High School, llford, Essex

A-levels: computing, biology and maths

Predicted: C, D, E

Got: Three As

Plans to study optometry at City University, London

"I had been really upset when I came out of my exams. I was expecting Cs and Ds and I thought I would have to have a gap year and retake them. When I found I had got straight As I was amazed.

"Being a Muslim, I'd put it down to the praying I've done; it is like a miracle for me. My family were in tears.

"A-levels are not getting easier; it is that students actually want to get higher grades, and the emphasis being put on education."

Elly Berry

AGE 18

School: Cheltenham Ladies' College, Gloucestershire

A-levels: biology, chemistry and geography

Predicted: Two As and a B

Got: Three As

Plans to take a year out before biology degree at the University of Durham

"I was relieved, excited and very happy. My parents were delighted and I am glad I have made them proud.

"A-levels are still challenging. It is slightly annoying when you hear the criticisms because we worked hard to achieve the results.

"In October, my father and I will be trekking in Bhutan and hope to raise £5,000 for the Sobell Health Hospice in Oxford. Then I'm off to Thailand to work at a wildlife rescue centre, then I'm touring Australia and New Zealand."

Ryan Lindsay

AGE 18

School: Heart of England School, Solihull, W Midlands

A-levels: chemistry, physics and maths with mechanics

Predicted: Three Cs

Got: Three Ds

Plans a two-year course in motor sports at North Warwickshire and Hinckley College from next month

"I wasn't too pleased with my exam results. I don't need any grades for the course I am doing. I did the A-levels in case I needed them later. The first year was relatively easy but the second year was hard.

"My parents are OK with it; they knew I was doing too much racing and not enough work. I can't wait to get started on my course. You go out with racing teams and that is what I am interested in."

Natalie Dixon

AGE 18

School: Bilborough College, Nottingham

A-levels: biology, chemistry and psychology

Predicted: One pass

Got: Two passes (a D in psychology and E in biology)

Plans a year out then a nursing degree at Nottingham Trent University

"The results were not great but it doesn't matter because I still have my place at universityg.

"I wasn't expecting anything and didn't have high hopes because of personal problems. But at least the time wasn't wasted, I still had a good experience and gained a lot of social skills.

"My family were disappointed but I had my own personal goal which I have achieved, which was to at least get one A-level."

Steven Chambers

AGE 18

School: Wyke Sixth Form College, Hull, Humberside

A-levels: maths, physics, English, general studies, further maths

Predicted: Four As and a B

Got: Four As and a B, plus a distinction in an advanced extension award in English. Plans master's in mathematics at Imperial College, London

"The morning I got my results the TV news was reporting about exams getting easier. It is hurtful. I think it's part of the British psyche to always look at the negative. People jump to the conclusion exams are getting easier rather than considering standards are rising.

"A-star grades don't seem like a complete answer but more of a short-term, politically-driven solution."

Sophie Clifton

AGE 18

School: Sir William Borlase's Grammar School, Marlow, Buckinghamshire

A-levels: Drama and psychology and geography

Predicted: Two As and a B

Got: Three As

Plans to apply to university next year to start psychology degree

"Getting my results was a massive relief. I wasn't too surprised though because I know when I've done badly and I know when I've done well. I have decided to take a year out, work a bit and raise funds so I can go travelling.

"Some people say A-levels are getting easier and maybe they are, but I feel there is more pressure to do well and there will be even more if these new A-star grades come out. So many people have A grades now that an A-star would help universities pick the best of the best, but arrogant students could be even more cocky."

Jonathan Owen

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