Thousands of students could miss out on their first choice universities this year, it has been suggested, in what is likely to be the most "competitive year" ever for courses.

The proportion of pupils receiving top grades could fall by almost 10 percentage points compared with last year, when students were given grades determined by teachers rather than exams due to the Covid pandemic, an education expert has said.

As a result the Government has already stated that grades look set to drop this summer, and then again in 2023, as part of a transition back to pre-pandemic arrangements.

Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham, said there could be 80,000 fewer top grades – A* or A – awarded than in 2021, meaning some 40,000 students could miss out on their course or university of choice.

The proportion of pupils receiving top grades could fall by almost 10 percentage points compared with last year (PA)Grades look set to drop again next summer also as pandemic measures for last year's exams are rolled back (PA)

He has predicted that the 2022 pass rates could see 35.0% of candidates receiving an A* or A grade, compared with 44.8% of entrants last year.

In September Ofqual, the exams regulator for England, announced that this year’s grades would aim to reflect a midway point between 2021 and 2019.

Prof Smithers said he can understand why, “since those wanting to go to university will be competing with those holding inflated grades from the boom years who put off going to university during the pandemic”.

He said it is likely there could be 80,000 more A or A* grades than 2019, but 80,000 fewer than in 2021.

The figures could translate to some 40,000 – and even up to 60,000 – students missing out on their first choices, he said.

Describing 2022 as “likely to be the most competitive ever”, he added: “Not only will there be the extra top grades, but there is the carry-over from the Covid years, increased demand from mature and overseas students, and the number of 18-year-olds is rising, nearly half of whom apply to university.

Universities have reacted to the teacher-assessment boom in top grades by raising requirements and reducing firm offers. For many of this year’s school leavers the hard work did not end with A-levels, but begins again on results day in the chase for the coveted places.

“As a result of bringing down the top grades, about 40,000 applicants could miss out on their first choices, although it could be as many as 60,000.”

The proportion of pupils receiving top grades could fall by almost 10 percentage points compared with last year (PA)Students have been encouraged to have a Plan B in place if they don't get into their first choice (PA)

He reassured pupils there will be “a place for everyone somewhere since there is no government cap on places, but the top courses will come under heavy pressure”.

Students have already been warned to have a plan B in place by education minister Will Quince, who also said that “universities will adjust accordingly” to the overall lower grades.

A spokesman for exams regulator Ofqual said there is “no link between grades and the supply of places”.

He said: “While there may be fewer top grades this year compared to 2021, when a different method of assessment (teacher-assessed grades) was used, universities understand what grades will look like overall this year and have made offers accordingly.

“According to Ucas, while the number of people deferring last year to this year did increase slightly, it won’t affect the vast majority of courses this year.”

When is A Levels Results Day 2022?

A Level Results Day is Thursday, August 18 for England and Wales.