Richard Boffey: Young Londoners’ impressive A Level results bode well for the capital’s high skills economy

Richard Boffey: Young Londoners’ impressive A Level results bode well for the capital’s high skills economy

Last Thursday marked a major milestone for the thousands of Londoners receiving their A Level, BTEC, T Level and other vocational and technical results. The class of 2023 have shown great perseverance and dedication to complete their studies despite cancelled GCSE exams, spiralling cost pressures and wider disruption to their schooling. They can be very proud of their attainments. The fact that almost one in three of London’s A Level cohort obtained an A or A* is all the more remarkable given the circumstances in which those grades were achieved.

The university admissions data for London tell a similarly positive story. Over 60,000 Londoners have secured a university place to date through the university and college admissions service (UCAS), with many weeks still to go during which thousands more will no doubt accept places. The numbers in London appear to have bucked the national trend, at least insofar as they have remained broadly in line with 2022. whereas they have fallen in other regions of England, as was predicted to due to changes to grading.

This is positive if not altogether unsurprising. Demand for university places among young Londoners has, after all, proven remarkably resilient in the wake of the pandemic and now amid the cost of living crisis. London Higher’s research, based on polling of the “Covid cohort” in late summer 2021, showed that the experiences of lockdowns, remote education and campus closures had done little to deter them from pursuing a place at university.

More recently, University College London’s COVID Social Mobility and Opportunities (COSMO) study, which is tracking the Covid cohort nationally to understand the pandemic’s impact on their future aspirations and life chances, found them to be more motivated than older generations to progress to higher education. For young Londoners university remains the destination of choice.

This should be welcome news from the perspective of the capital’s employers. Research suggests there will be 2.3 million vacancies at graduate level in the capital between now and 2035, and this demand for skilled talent can only be met if university entry rates remain at or above their current level. The Westminster government has a role to play here. Recently introduced proposals to impose student number caps on higher education courses (especially targeting programmes in the creative arts, humanities and social sciences) entirely disregard the needs of London’s economy, and must be urgently rethought by the next government if it is serious about improving productivity.

Employers would hardly disagree. Kingston University London (pictured) recently surveyed businesses across the country for its Future Skills report and found that the skills they say they need most are the higher-level critical thinking, team working and problem-solving abilities that sit at the heart of all undergraduate curricula – not just those in so-called “high priority” or STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subject areas.

We don’t yet have the data on university admissions for London by subject, but if admissions patterns broadly track 2022 trends (as they have done in other respects), we can expect nearly 40,000 UK students to be progressing to courses in the arts, humanities and social sciences in the city. These students represent a major part of the solution to its skills challenge. Their securing a university place should be celebrated as such.

Of course, we only have partial results data at this stage and there are a number of other trends to keep a watchful eye on as the clearing cycle progresses. For instance, it seems that the examinations regulator Ofqual’s “glide path” back to pre-pandemic grading has disproportionately impacted students from lower-income and underrepresented backgrounds, though we don’t yet know the extent of this. Some of this week’s media coverage has picked up on evidence of growing regional disparities, with London and the South East pulling away from other regions in rates of top-end attainment. How this has played out in London with respect to the attainment profiles of different groups of Londoners is not yet clear.

Similarly, we don’t yet know the exact destinations of the London cohort progressing to higher education, or who missed out – either on their preferred place or on a place altogether. UCAS says 91 per cent of university applicants nationally secured either their firm or insurance choice. If that is reflected in the capital, thousands of Londoners will be without a university offer.

This raises important questions about the higher education sector’s ability to absorb high rates of demand in a way that ensures all students, not just the most privileged or highest-attaining, can benefit from the opportunities afforded by university. By extension, we need to ensure enough is being done to signpost school and college leavers towards the full range of study pathways available in London, including vocational and technical routes, which have an equally important role to play in delivering on the Mayor’s Skills for Londoners vision.

We can expect to learn more, then, about the implications of A Level results day for London – and especially for social mobility in London – as clearing progresses. But in the meantime, we must congratulate students on their outstanding results in the face of considerable adversity. And we should look ahead with optimism to the future role they will play in sustaining London’s high-skill economy.

Dr Richard Boffey is Head of AccessHE, the widening participation division of London Higher. X/Twitter: London Higher. If you value On London and its writers, become a supporter or a paid subscriber to publisher and editor Dave Hill’s Substack. Thanks.

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