Policy Guide
Student numbers and high grades

Yvonne Hawkins from HEFCE explains student number controls and the 'high-grades' policy.

Which grades are exempt?

Students entering higher education in 2012-13 with AAB grades or above at A-level, or certain equivalent qualifications and grades, were not included in university and college student number controls.

Download the 2012-13 exemptions list

Download the AAB+ equivalences as PDF (39 KB)

Students entering higher education in 2013-14 with ABB grades or above at A-level, or certain equivalent qualifications and grades, will not be included in university and college student number controls.

Download the 2013-14 exemptions list

Download the Students outside the student number control in 2013-14 Exemptions list (updated January 2013) as PDF (138 KB)  ‌‌‌

Letter on plans for 2014-15

Download the Letter on Student Number Controls for 2014-15 as PDF (43 KB)

How to contact us

If you are a student, parent, teacher, or careers advisor who has concerns about the high-grades policy, please contact the HEFCE Learning and Teaching Policy team on snc@hefce.ac.uk.


When universities and colleges recruit new students, they cannot simply take as many as they might like. This is because the Government needs to control the level of publicly-funded student loans and grants for fees and maintenance.

Based on guidance from Government we set each institution a limit – or ‘student number control’ – on the number of students they may recruit.

This limit is only designed to control the number of students entering university or college. It is not designed to influence decisions about the suitability of candidates.

Universities and colleges are autonomous organisations and these decisions are entirely up to them. They have always admitted students on the basis of academic excellence and potential, and they should continue to do so.

The ‘high-grades’ policy

Not all students are included in the student number control. The Government is keen to encourage popular and successful universities and colleges to expand, and to improve student choice.

So it has decided to allow universities and colleges to recruit as many students with high grades at A-level and certain equivalent qualifications (broadly defined each year by government policy) as they wish, and are able to, outside of their student number control. We call this the ‘high-grades’ policy.

We are responsible for putting the high-grades policy into practice and for identifying the high-grade qualifications from which institutions may recruit applicants without limit.

To do this, we have developed a list of entry qualifications and grades which are exempt from the student number control – this is known as the ‘exemptions list’.    

The ‘exemptions list’

This ‘exemptions list’ does not include all high-grade qualifications. It does not, for example, include combinations of different qualifications, or qualifications from all other EU states.

This is because we need to be able to estimate the numbers of students in the ‘uncontrolled’ population as accurately as possible, so that the Government can manage its budget.

We are currently consulting on how we might extend the exemptions list in order to expand the population that will be exempt from the student number control. 

How does this affect applications?

A number of schools and other organisations have expressed concerns that the high-grades policy may disadvantage some applicants.

Where a student holds a combination of qualifications with high grades (such as a BTEC or the Cambridge Pre-U in combination with A-levels) this means they will form part of an institution’s controlled entry number. Some are concerned that institutions are less likely to take these students because they do not want to risk exceeding their student number control limit.

We have taken a number of steps to ensure that this should not happen:

Sufficient numbers

We believe that we are providing all universities and colleges with sufficient numbers in their student number control to enable them to admit high-achieving students with qualifications which are not on the exemptions list, and students with combinations of qualifications. This should also provide universities and colleges with the flexibility to make ‘contextual offers’ to students that are under-represented in higher education, if they so wish. (These are offers that take into account the context, and social and economic circumstances in which the applicant is applying for higher education.)


We will work closely with universities and colleges to ensure that their student number control is set at a sufficient level. Any university or college which says it needs more places to continue to offer fair access to all applicants can appeal against its student number control. We will listen carefully to their concerns if we feel that there is any risk that students are not being treated fairly.

Highly selective institutions

We are particularly concerned to ensure that highly selective institutions (those with over 80 per cent of their intake falling within the ABB+ population) also have a student number control limit sufficient to allow them to continue to provide fair access to high-achieving students that do not meet our definition of ABB+ or equivalent. So we have allocated additional student places to the most selective universities which otherwise would have been left with a very small student number limit. Universities may still experience excess demand for places, and as in past years, not all applicants will be successful.

More flexibility

For the 2013-14 academic year, universities and colleges will also have more flexibility around their student number control allocation. They will have limited scope to exceed their allocation by up to 3 per cent without incurring a reduction for over-recruitment.

We have also explained to universities and colleges that the list of exemptions has been developed for the practical and limited purpose of implementing the Government’s student number control policy. It does not:

  • provide an assessment of students’ academic achievements
  • attempt to judge the educational value or equivalence of other qualifications or of combinations of qualifications
  • serve as a tool to help universities and colleges make judgements about which students are suitable to admit or to whom to offer financial support.

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