The consequences of the number of top A-level grades falling for the first time in 20 years are being felt in the United Kingdom's university clearing system. Graeme Paton of the Telegraph reports that the number of students accepted to read undergraduate courses has fallen eight percent compared to the previous year as 362,089 students had been accepted onto courses by Thursday 16th August.
This is the first year that universities have been allowed the freedom to accept unlimited numbers of students achieving at least two As and a B on A-level exams. However, it seems that the fall in top grades awarded has resulted in a large number of students just missing their offer conditions.
Prof Debra Humphris, pro vice-chancellor of Southampton, said: "It's heartbreaking. I have spoken to a countless number of students who were predicted AAB or above but literally missed by a grade. One got A*BB. There's nothing we can do for them."
In 2011 27% of exam papers were awarded at least an A. In 2012 this figure dropped to 26.6%. The last time this figure dropped was in 1991 and this year's 0.4% reduction is the largest in the 60 year history of A-levels.
In the last decade there have been growing complaints over grade inflation and the dumbing down of exams. There are now accusations from teachers' leaders that Ofqual, the exams regulator, deliberately depressed scores this year.
While having more than a quarter of students who sit an exam getting an A would seem to indicate that the system is inclined towards mediocrity and in need of repair, problems are arising from the way addressing this issue appears to have been handled as a large proportion of students have been placed in academic limbo.
Rachel Wenstone, vice-president of the National Union of Students, said: "Overall, fewer applicants than last year have had their places confirmed, and as a result of minister's tinkering many now face an anxious wait."
There are currently nearly 165,000 students eligible for the clearing process.
David Willetts, the Universities Minister, has responded to concerns:
"I would encourage students to consider studying part time or perhaps pursue an apprenticeship," he said. "You can also choose to reapply next year.
"Under our new reforms graduates will have to make a greater contribution towards the cost for their degree, but there will be more generous financial support available while you study and fairer repayment arrangements when you leave university."
Willetts also indicated that controls may be further relaxed in 2013 to allow institutions to take more students with an A and two Bs.