A-level results next week in England, Wales and Northern Ireland could see high levels of top grades, according to an annual analysis of exam trends.
Prof Alan Smithers, at the University of Buckingham, is predicting a “bumper crop” of A* and A grades, in results for exams cancelled by the pandemic.
But he warns against allowing “grade inflation” to become the norm.
The University of East Anglia (UEA) is also reporting early signs that it could be a “record year for grades”.
There have been suggestions that if more pupils receive high grades – which are being submitted by teachers for a second year in a row – there will be a crush for places at the most sought-after universities and courses, in a year with record numbers of applications.
Prof Smithers said some universities could consider introducing their own exams to help them choose between students.
Pressure on places
There have already been reports of oversubscribed medicine courses trying to get applicants to defer for a year – such as at the University of Exeter, where students were offered £10,000 to delay.
But Richard Harvey, director of admissions at UEA, reassured students that even if grades are higher than last year’s record high levels, there is capacity in the university system.
“Of course that will cause pressure in certain subjects, mostly medical ones, and in certain universities. At UEA, medicine and related subjects look a bit pressured, but in other subjects I do hope we can continue to welcome people, so I’d encourage people to get in touch,” he said.
Universities will be getting advance notice of whether applicants have achieved their required grades, and will be going through their admission decisions ahead of the official release of results next week.
The Department for Education says it will create more places for medical and dentistry courses, without specifying how many yet, to allow universities more flexibility in recruiting. There has been a 20% increase in applications for such courses.
Although universities, which might want to provide more places for medicine, say they might be limited by the availability of training placements in clinical settings.
This will be the second year in which results will be decided without pupils taking the usual set of exam papers.
Schools submitted grades for pupils, based on a range of evidence, including mini-exams, mock exams and coursework, and next week will see the final results issued by exam boards.
Last year saw huge controversy after an initial downgrading of many pupils’ grades – which was then reversed in a U-turn which saw the highest-ever proportion of A* and A grades.
Almost two in five A-levels, 38.5%, were awarded an A* or A last year after the U-turn, up from 25.5% for pupils in 2019.
Prof Smithers, in his annual pre-results report, suggests results are once again going to be very high, or even higher, to compensate for the disruption facing pupils.
“While logically there is no reason why A-level standards should not be restored to what they were in 2019, my fear is that the various pressures will cause the government to allow what they became in 2020 to stand,” he said.
He warned that issuing so many top grades makes it hard for universities to distinguish between students.
“Leading universities could be forced to set their own tests to help them distinguish between the many prospective students awarded straight As,” said Prof Smithers.
Tom Middlehurst, of the ASCL head teachers’ union, said speculation about grades was “unhelpful” and said that if grades were higher this year “it would be a reflection of the system devised by the government and [regulator] Ofqual” rather than a decision by teachers.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, promising extra places for medical courses, said: “Students have worked incredibly hard over the past 18 months and we have continued to put their best interests first to ensure they can progress on to the next stage of their education training or career.”