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Recently words like ‘unprecedented’ have become part of our daily lexicon to the extent that they have almost become meaningless (or banned from use). So, let’s just agree that the sector probably hasn’t seen a 48 hours quite like the one we’ve just experienced for a good long time! 

For most, no matter your role within the sector, I would suggest that the overriding emotions of the last few days are ones of frustration – that this was probably avoidable, and upset that students, through no fault of their own, were left to feel in so many cases, such injustice;  a feeling that they were a number in a larger equation where the top-line answer mattered more than their own individual stories, their own performance, intelligence and hard work.  

Results day dominated the news cycle and is a story that will continue, I would predict for a good few weeks yet. Results day feels like the opening prologue to a longer running saga that will, in my view, become dominated by the currently ambiguous appeals process likely followed by a return to the debate over PQA.   

A snap survey carried out across our Complete University Guide and Whatuni social media channels on Thursday afternoon asked students whether they intended to appeal their grades. Well over half (58%) of respondents said they would. This was a relatively small sample of just under 500 students but it shows that at this stage many students are not willing to accept their grades. However, as it stands, students seem to have little ability as individuals to seek an appeal, relying instead on their school or college to argue on their behalf, not that the individual student has been mis-graded but that the school as a whole has changed in some way and therefore previous cohorts are no longer representative of this year's students. For those who have done mock exams under certain conditions (that are yet to be defined) there is some additional recourse. Other than that, students must delay starting university and retake their exams in the autumn, after which Gavin Williamson has suggested that there will be a second round of some sort of Clearing and Confirmation process (that too is yet to be defined).   

If a second Clearing takes place, or a large number of students choose to take the September exams, this may increase the incentive for universities to put on a second, and potentially larger January intake. Potentially good news for international students who our Crossroads Survey showed have strong intent to study in the UK, but are being held back by delays in results, visas, and travel restrictions.   

So, how have institutions been handling students who intend to appeal? Staff at IDP Connect have been talking to staff at a range of universities so that we can gather the information that we need to pass on to the students that use our sites. There is no uniform answer. At one end of the spectrum some institutions are only accepting and making offers based on the moderated grades and asking students to get back in touch with them once the appeal process has been completed. At the other end some universities are listening to the student’s evidence and basis for appeal and making offers based on this, with the student then needing to show evidence of a successful appeal by 7th of September. Other universities are making an offer pending submission of successful appeal and working with schools to allow them to submit evidence directly to the institution.  So, the anxiety and uncertainty for many of these students will continue well into September.  

This brings me on to the students themselves, how has their behaviour changed this year, given the circumstances? Well, firstly our sites saw a slow start to the day – this may be due in part to the difficulties in accessing UCAS Track which prevented students utilising our grade filter tool to find out which universities they should prioritise calling. However, by mid-morning traffic and page views picked up considerably. When on site, students this year were more inclined to click through to universities rather than call direct – this is not what I expected to see but given students uncertainty and that many had received grades they were not necessarily expecting it is understandable that they wanted to carry out more research before calling. By 18:00 on Thursday Whatuni had seen a 10% increase in traffic and the number of interactions students made with universities through the site increased year on year by over a fifth. 

Additional significant trends that we have identified are as follows:  


Slightly higher grade tariffs are being searched this year, this is in line with the overall national picture. The average of the top 10 tariff points searched 2020 was 108, over 7 points higher than the 2019 average of 100.8 

Equally, higher grade tariffs, including 144, 136 and 126 (AAA, AAB and ABB) took up a higher percentage of the top 10 tariff searches yesterday than they dd in 2019. 

Subjects: It’s been all about medicine this year. 

Biomedical Sciences, a well-known alternative route into medicine, again dominated as the top-searched course on A-level results day, followed by other Medicine-related courses Midwifery, Radiography and Optometry.

Criminology was also within the top 5 most searched courses this year, however, it slipped from the 3rd most popular in 2019 to 4th in 2020.  

Medicine was the subject with the biggest increase in searches this year of 80% higher interest than in other years, with other Medicine-related courses, Mental Health Nursing and Children Nursing, also in the top 5 subjects increasing their share of searches along with Veterinary Medicine and Dental Hygiene.  

Interest in some of the big science subjects dropped considerably, with zoology, natural sciences and marine biology all suffering over 50% less interest compared to Clearing day 2019. However, it’s Photography and History who have declined the most in terms of Clearing day interest, both down over 60% compared to last year.    

From these subject trends, it appears that students are focusing on subjects they think will lead to secure careers.  

The dramatic focus on Medicine-related subjects and alternative routes into the field may also reflect the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on students’ aspirations, leading them to see medicine as an appealing field. Given the recent rise in mental health issues after the UK’s lockdown, the rise in interest in mental health nursing is both a touching reflection of the caring nature of students, and potentially a huge relief for a field in need of more investment. 

Location: Scotland is the place to be? 

Students showed significantly higher interest in studying in Scotland yesterday in comparison to Clearing day 2019. This heightened interest in Scottish institutions compared to other parts of the UK has been building over the past 2 weeks but peaked on A-level results day. 

In contrast, other areas of the UK, particularly South Wales and the East and West Midlands, were significantly less popular this year.

Jonah Duffin
Jonah Duffin14 August 2020