Exams fiasco could ‘crowd out’ poorer students from top campuses

Caps on places and bigger rise in share of top grades at independent schools could lead to skewed intakes

August 14, 2020
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Many students from poorer backgrounds could be crowded out from the UK’s most selective universities this year because of the way A-level grades have been calculated and the cap on undergraduate numbers, it has been warned.

Data from England’s exam regulator Ofqual showed that the share of pupils from independent schools getting the top A and A* grades increased by almost 5 percentage points. This was more than double the rise at state comprehensives (up by 2 percentage points) and far higher than sixth forms and further education colleges (0.3 percentage points).

Early figures on university admissions suggested that, overall, the number of students from the most disadvantaged areas gaining a place had reached a record level, and was up more than rises for applicants from other areas.

But with acceptances of UK students at the most selective universities up by 7 per cent on results day, there are concerns that a larger share of these places might have been taken by independent school pupils at the expense of applicants from the state sector.

Gill Wyness, deputy director of the UCL Institute of Education’s Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities, said the capping of the number of undergraduate places could potentially create some crowding out.

“Ideally, we would like universities to be less strict with who they accept this year, especially for students who may have been penalised by the standardisation process,” she said.

“But the numbers caps restrict supply of places, and that could crowd out poorer students – who may have lower grades – at selective universities,” added Dr Wyness, whose previous research has found that applicants from poorer backgrounds were already less likely to attend the most selective universities even when their grades allow.

She suggested that one way to help avoid disadvantaged groups being crowded out this year could be to remove the student number control, “or at least remove them for targeted groups of students”.

However, Matthew Andrews, university secretary and registrar at the University of Gloucestershire, said that while it was possible the variations in grading by school type could have an impact, the scale might ultimately depend on whether they actually affected students’ original choice of institution or not.

“If a student got two A*s and an A, and the offer was for three As…it has made no difference in terms of who has been admitted. It could have some impact for some institutions, certainly, but I would not anticipate [the impact] being massive [overall].”


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