Nervousness over A-level results after Scottish Highers row

Students who miss their grades may also be locked out if highly subscribed institutions fear breaching number controls and coronavirus regulations

August 7, 2020
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Hopes of a “buyer’s market” for students wanting to enter UK universities may turn out to be dashed by moderation of A-level results and restrictions on institutional recruitment.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, more domestic students appeared to pick highly selective institutions as their first and second choices because of the perception that predicted grades were more likely to be reflected in final results in the absence of exam scores, said Mike Nicholson, director of student recruitment and admissions at the University of Bath.

However, this may not prove to be the case, as seen in the case of the Scottish Highers results, where moderation resulted in a quarter of students’ predicted scores being downgraded to prevent a wild leap in overall performance.

This week the Labour Party wrote to the Westminster government asking for assurances that A-level results would be fair, with shadow education secretary Kate Green highlighting that, as exam boards take into account school-wide prior attainment, “the system risks baking in inequality and doing most harm to students from disadvantaged backgrounds, those from ethnic minority groups and those with special educational needs and disabilities”.

International Baccalaureate results were met with similar outrage this year, as pupils complained that their results were far below what was predicted.

Writing in a blog for the Higher Education Policy Institute, Ben Jordan, head of policy at admissions service Ucas, said he was “confident universities will show extra flexibility this year, particularly with disadvantaged students”.

However, Mr Nicholson warned that high-tariff institutions may have less wiggle room this year if students fall short, because the government has imposed student number controls on universities and as institutions prepare for social distancing.

“At Bath, we guarantee that every student has access to accommodation, but this year we’ve had to discontinue some student housing because of coronavirus measures. For example, they all need individual access to handwashing facilities in their rooms. Luckily, we also have new student housing ready to go, so we should be able to take a similar number of students as last year,” Mr Nicholson said.

Although Russell Group members had increased their presence in clearing – the process that allows students who did better or worse than anticipated to change their university or course choices – this year Bath would only go in for a small number of courses and “my sense is the other highly selective institutions are planning to do the same”, he added.  

Nick Hillman, Hepi’s director, said that issues around this year’s A levels mean some students might be able “get a better deal by making that argument” about fairness to universities looking to increase their recruitment. “Some universities will be fighting hard to recruit, as long as they don’t breach the number cap,” he said.

Because the cap allows for some growth – 5 per cent – some, most likely more “prestigious” institutions will be able to capitalise on that, he added.

For those perceived as less prestigious, “the coronavirus will not be their saviour, it will probably make things worse. These problems are rarely felt evenly,” Mr Hillman added.

However, institutions across the sector are likely to be pleased that some of the negative trends predicted at the beginning of the lockdowns had not materialised.  

Mr Nicholson said that he had seen a very small increase in deferrals, from 75 last year to 100 this year, but that overall there was a bigger increase in students who had originally planned to start in 2021 but had changed their mind since the outbreak of the pandemic. “Travelling and earning opportunities are limited, so it seems they are keen to move into higher education,” he said. This was echoed in recent data from Ucas.

Similarly, because this is the last year that European Union students are able to access student loans to study in the UK, it “appears to have firmed up some of their decisions” about whether to take up their places.

This was echoed by June Hughes, secretary and registrar of the University of Derby, who said two months ago they had expected to see a surge in deferrals but had actually seen the opposite.

Derby was preparing for a busier than ever clearing period. “Clearing is always intense but this year students might not get what they had expected. There is an anxiety,” she said. “My message, as always if anyone is unsure, [is to] just look around and pick up the phone.”

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

Doesn't that say as much about poor prediction as skewed assessments?

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