A-level results: a day to celebrate | David Willetts

Don’t listen to the cynics and the grumblers. Opportunities are being opened up in higher education like never before

For hundreds of thousands of young people, A-level results day is the most eagerly anticipated moment of their lives so far. I congratulate everyone who has worked so hard to reach this point. For the first time, Ucas will inform people whether they have won a university place early on Thursday morning via email. When the messages arrive, the vast majority will find they have achieved the results they need to attend the university of their choice.

We expect to see a better match between students and institutions this year. In the past, university places have been dished out from the centre. Those that recruited too many students have been fined and those that recruited too few have seen a permanent loss of places. Now, institutions can recruit as many students securing AAB or higher in their A-levels as they wish. We have removed number controls from the most competitive institutions. We have additionally sought to provide more local provision through 20,000 places at lower-cost institutions.

We expect the new AAB freedom to affect up to 85,000 students, one quarter of all fulltime entrants. Next year, the threshold will be lowered to ABB benefiting one in three entrants, or 120,000 people. My conversations with vice-chancellors suggest universities are responding imaginatively to this liberation, so many more applicants should be able to attend their first choice university. I recognise universities do not have rubber walls that allow endless expansion but we do expect them to start growing – and perhaps contracting – in line with demand.

Those entering higher education this autumn will also be the first to experience the new student finance regime. They will have access to higher maintenance grants, new fee waivers and student bursaries. Of course, they will also face higher fees, though there will be a more progressive loan system to cover them. In return, students deserve a world-class education. Now that the main funding for degrees flows via students, there are much sharper incentives on institutions to deliver an excellent student experience.

Various claims have been made that people from disadvantaged backgrounds might lose out as a result of our reforms. But the latest research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows that “the new funding regime is actually more progressive than its predecessor: the poorest graduates will be better off under the new system than under the current system”. Young people are coming to understand this and the latest Ucas data suggests this year has seen the second highest university application rate among young people on record, with no material reduction among those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds.

The coalition is in no doubt about the ability of higher education to transform lives. Michael Gove’s school reforms will make a huge difference in ensuring young people realise their potential. As a result of our policies, universities will soon be spending 50% more on initiatives to widen participation at university. And, for those completing their Ucas forms this autumn, the government has obliged universities to make key information available for every course. This includes figures on employment outcomes, living costs and contact time. We expect third party organisations, like Which, to repackage this information in innovative and accessible ways.

Young people should ignore the cynics and the grumblers. They have achieved a significant landmark in their lives. The overwhelming majority of those who want a university place will get one, even if they haven’t achieved the grades they hoped for. Others will find there are alternative education and training opportunities, including on the expanded apprenticeship programme. This Thursday is a stepping stone to the rest of their lives.

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