Exam cancellations to spark ‘almighty scramble’ in UK admissions

Fallout from virus measures could hit poorest students hardest or be basis for advent of PQA, sector figures suggest

March 20, 2020
Source: Getty

The cancellation of exams caused by the closure of all schools amid the coronavirus outbreak could hurt the poorest students most, lead to the most prestigious universities “hoovering up students”, or hasten the advent of post-qualification admissions, experts suggest.

In response to the crisis, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has ordered schools in England to close from 20 March and for GCSE and A-level exams to be cancelled this year, with the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish governments also making the same moves.

It has been suggested that universities could instead be asked to confirm the conditional offers that they have sent out on the basis of predicted grades.

Alternatively, Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK, has said that a combination of teacher assessments and previous assignments could allow awards to be granted this summer and for university admissions to proceed on that basis.

Cancelling exams will affect university admissions “in a massive way”, according to Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute.

It has taken away “the single most important bit of information” that universities use, he added.

Universities, particularly more prestigious ones, also make more offers than they have places, based on the assumption that not everyone will achieve the grades that they had been predicted, Mr Hillman continued.

The other problem with basing entry on any criteria not standardised nationally is that it is bad for some sets of students, Mr Hillman argued. It is well known that predicted grades are “woefully inaccurate” for disadvantaged students in particular, he said.

Lee Elliott Major, professor of social mobility at the University of Exeter, agreed that social mobility was an important factor in admission policy. “Evidence suggests the poorest students receive lower A level predictions than their more privileged peers,” he said.

But even if exams were taken later in the year this could affect the poorest students too, because they “will almost certainly fall behind those from better off homes as they will have less support at home”, Professor Elliott Major added.

“Perhaps we will need to consider more significant use of contextual offers in university admissions to take into consideration the particular circumstances created by the coronavirus pandemic,” he said.

Mary Curnock Cook, the former chief executive of Ucas, said that with universities already concerned about the loss of international students because of the coronavirus crisis, they may want to extend their domestic student numbers.

“This could lead to prestigious institutions hoovering up students, leaving less prestigious institutions in precarious financial positions," she continued. "It could be that the government may have to introduce a light-touch number control system to prevent inequity."

There is also the question of what happens to clearing, which is considered a good opportunity for people who have changed their minds or achieved better than expected grades, Ms Curnock Cook said. In any of the potential scenarios discussed, clearing would not figure, she added.

Ms Curnock Cook said that admissions offices are good at assessing students based on the information they have so far, including predicted grades, GCSE results and personal statements. “They will have to re-sift their offers and this time it’s for who they are actually going to admit. Notwithstanding staff shortages, that should be possible,” she said.

Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, said: “We can’t take everyone…there will be no easy route.”

The news would cause “an almighty scramble, but in fact, we already have an almighty scramble every year,” he added.

Professor Bale pointed out that the admissions system was not perfect and that the government had already ordered a review of the system. “It strikes me that this is the time to grab the bull by the horns,” he added.

“Perhaps it’s time to look at post-qualification admissions for example: if students could take the exams later in the year, say October, and admit them on actual grades in January. We know predicted grades are notoriously unreliable, so perhaps it’s time to get rid of them.”

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Scrapped exams may spark UK admissions ‘scramble’

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Reader's comments (6)

There should be scope surely for exam boards to negotiate with schools and colleges to allocate to each institution roughly the same proportion of A*, A, B etc grades for the schools/colleges to distribute to their own students as were allocated in the previous year, with some adjustment (in terms of overall allocation) permitted to take into account performance of that cohort at GCSE (though of course these poor students were also guinea pigs for the new GCSE grading system...).
It would be more useful if you had considered non-Russell Group universities in this, and students doing BTECs, DIplomas and non-A Level qualifications. The majority of university students in the UK are not at a Russell Group university, and a large proportion of those did not sit A levels. I have yet to even see a news article that actually mentions BTECs in the reporting of the cancellation of A level and GCSE exams. I assume they are also cancelled, but it would be nice to know. The country is changing, as is the university sector, but it seems that the pundits and analysts are still entirely focused on the idea that university has not changed since the seventies.
There are two options to immediately resolve this problem: a. the suggestion of the chief executive officer of Universities UK that Advanced Level teachers do an assessment of students in the various subjects and this can be combined with the last two marks in that subject to get an average mark on the basis of which a pass or fail is awarded in each subject OF b. Students can apply to enter degree programs wherever and each university should develop and administer an entrance exam equivalent to Advanced Level standards.
Very clever suggestions. Now we only need to figure out how to administer an exam for all applicants which does not put staff and applicants at risk while also excludes any possibility for academic misconduct (cheating, collusion, ghosting, etc). As soon as someone comes with an implementable decision on this, I am sure universities will greatly appreciate it for admissions and also for their other assessments. Currently it's an open problem.
I can't see why we don't delay all exams for entry into university and other types of higher education bodies, apprenticeships etc until end of July-early August when a dip is predicted in terms of Covid 19 allowing things to resume for a bit and give students a fairer chance. It would be a good idea to offer distance learning to the less privileged kids so they do not fall behind...I am surprised to see that nothing has been implemented on a national scale yet in this day and age of cutting edge technology...
And what if the predicted dip won't happen at all, or won't be deep enough for the Government to be able to lift currently imposed restrictions? The decision has to be made now, and there is a lot of uncertainty even in the best predictions at the moment.

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