A-level grade inflation ‘could destabilise admissions again’

Experts praise decision to remove controversial algorithm but warn better than expected scores could put pressure on sector

February 27, 2021
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Admissions officers have warned that the likely grade inflation from allowing A-level results to be determined through teacher assessment could destabilise UK university admissions for a second year in a row.

Education secretary Gavin Williamson announced that teachers in England will submit grades, based on a range of factors including mock exams, to exam boards and that no standardisation algorithm will be applied, after earlier announcing that A-level exams would be scrapped because of the pandemic.

Mr Williamson is hoping to avoid the chaos of last year when it emerged than 250,000 results were downgraded from teacher-estimated grades as part of a standardisation process. This was found to penalise students from poorer backgrounds and was scrapped, leaving tens of thousands of students potentially eligible for an offer for which they had previously been rejected.

However, Matthew Andrews, registrar at the University of Gloucestershire, warned that the latest announcement only partially addressed last year’s problems.

While basing grades on teacher assessments was fairer, it was very likely to result in grade inflation across the sector, he said. This could create a lot of pressure on universities, because the predicted grades that were given in Ucas applications will not necessarily be the same as the teacher-assessed grades, he said. “I would certainly not be surprised if this year we found ourselves with some increase again,” Dr Andrews said.

“If that turns out to be the case we’re almost back to where we were last year, with institutions being under quite a lot of pressure in some areas where they have more students than anticipated who have met their grades.”

This will involve a lot of work to accommodate them “quite literally, in some circumstances”, Dr Andrews said.

It would be a particular problem for certain disciplines, such as medicine, dentistry and veterinary courses, where their numbers are tightly controlled by the government. This would need to involve addressing the provision of placements in the NHS, for example, Dr Andrews explained.

It could also put pressure on institutions that find their students not coming to them in the volumes that they anticipated if they get the grades to go elsewhere.

“There could be institutions who find themselves with significantly lower numbers, through no fault of their own,” Dr Andrews said. “We do need to see some support from government, if institutions and specific courses find themselves in difficulty on that basis.”

However, Dr Andrews warned against the introduction of number caps, which the government introduced and then scrapped last year.

Another English admissions officer agreed. “The new system is “guaranteed to introduce a lot a grade inflation…This will likely destabilise the sector,” they said.

They explained that universities, which are concerned about financial losses, particularly if they are losing out on European Union or international students, would try to scoop up as many home students as possible, mostly from less selective institutions than themselves. “This would cause calamity down the bottom of the chain…In short we are expecting it to be like last year,” the admissions officer said.   

Mike Nicholson, director of undergraduate admissions at the University of Bath, called for further clarity from the government, particularly around when universities would receive students’ results through Ucas.

Results day for A levels had previously been pushed back by three weeks, to the week of 23 August, but has now been brought forward to 9 August.

Universities need to be able to determine whether they have the capacity to take additional students or take students who have narrowly missed their offer conditions, he said. Potentially some will have the space because they are expecting fewer EU students this year, he added.

This would reduce the number of appeals, because students who get in to their chosen university even if they miss their grades are less likely to appeal and allow Ucas to focus on those students who have missed out at the more selective and competitive universities, Mr Nicholson said. “Knowing more about the grounds for making an appeal would be useful to gauge the size of the potential issue.”

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (2)

>> brought forward to 9 August Others, including UCAS, are saying the new date is 10 August?
The universities already in financial trouble will be hit hard by this because the students they would have normally got are now going to be able to go to higher-ranked places. This creates more worries and more work at those institutions because they will desperately ramp up their marketing efforts and at the same time save money where possible by firing or not reappointing support staff like GTAs or temporary lecturers. At the top places, there will also be more work because they will get even more students than before, without being able to hire more staff as quickly to overcome the additional workload. Whether at a high-ranked or low-ranked University, these developments are inflicting a lot of pain and additional work. But it is also bad for students and society at large because grade inflation effectively makes our society dumber over time, with the illusion that we are getting more skilled.

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