A-level results day is taking place in two weeks' time with English students needing to be “quick off the mark” if they want to study at a top university as competition for degree places will be tougher, the head of the higher education admissions service has said.

Clare Marchant, chief executive of Ucas, told students who are set to leave school to research their options and prepare a Plan B ahead of A-level results day as the population sees a growth in 18-year-olds as well as a rise in international students.

Some top universities had just a handful of courses available through clearing the week before A-level results day while others have no vacancies listed.

Clearing matches applicants to university places yet to be filled.

The Bolton News: In England, national A-level results for 2023 will be lower than last yearIn England, national A-level results for 2023 will be lower than last year (Image: Canva)

Students need to be quick on A-level results day if they want to study at a top university

A PA news agency sample of 130 of the UK’s largest higher education providers showed more than 22,000 courses with vacancies for undergraduate students living in England were available on the Ucas clearing site as of Wednesday.

Of the 24 elite Russell Group universities, 15 had vacancies on courses for English residents with a total of 2,021 courses between them.

In the week before A-level results day, a similar analysis last year showed 17 of the 24 Russell Group universities had vacancies on courses for English residents – a total of 2,358 courses between them – on the clearing site.

In England, national A-level results for 2023 will be lower than last year but they are expected to be similar to those before the pandemic.

It comes after Covid-19 led to an increase in top A-level grades in 2020 and 2021 with results based on teacher assessments instead of exams.

When asked whether students will face greater competition for university places this summer, Ms Marchant told PA: “It’s getting more competitive which means places are filled up quicker and therefore there are slightly less in clearing and the competitive stuff that is in clearing is likely to go faster.”

She added: “Every year it’s going to become slightly more competitive, just simply because the demographics of 18-year-olds are increasing year on year and we’re still very internationally attractive.”

Clearing, a process that allows students to secure a place at universities or colleges, is open to various groups of students, including those who did not meet their offer conditions on A-level results day or did not receive any offers at all.

Additionally, students who have changed their study preferences or applied outside the normal application window can also use clearing.

The University of Manchester has yet to decide whether it will offer clearing vacancies this year, as currently, it has no courses listed on Ucas' clearing site.

A spokesman for the university said: “If we do go into clearing, it is likely to be for a limited number of places on a small number of programmes.”

Some universities have fewer courses available through clearing

Some universities had only a few courses available through clearing, with just two at the University of Exeter and four at St George’s, University of London.

Ms Marchant said: “When it comes to results day on August 17, I think a lot of those highly selective courses at highly selective institutions will go quite quickly.

“So certainly my advice to students, our advice at Ucas, is to be pretty quick off the mark if that’s what you’re looking for.”

Eight days before exam results day, a PA analysis revealed that there were 22,410 courses being offered through clearing at 130 universities.

Last year, a similar analysis by PA showed 23,280 courses were available through clearing just six days before A-level results day.

The current batch of students awaiting their A-level results did not take GCSE exams and received grades based on teacher assessments.

In an interview with PA, Ms Marchant said there might be a “slight increase” in appeals from students this year who may have expected to secure higher grades but she did not believe it would be significant.

Ucas has increased the amount of social media support offered to students ahead of results day in a bid to “manage expectations”, she added.

“A lot of people I talk to, it feels like Covid-19 was a long, long time ago. This is still the tail of Covid really because these students haven’t sat external exams before and I think that we need to be very cognizant of that in sort of making sure we have really good support,” Ms Marchant said.

Earlier this week, a social mobility expert suggested that students waiting for their A-level results are “the unluckiest” to come out of the pandemic as they face fewer top grades despite disruption to schooling.

Lee Elliot Major, professor of social mobility at the University of Exeter, said this year’s A-level cohort needs support and guidance as they will be experiencing “the highest levels of anxiety and uncertainty”.