Ofqual asks universities for ‘flexibility’ as A levels downgraded

First figures on admissions show record highs in 18-year-olds placed on courses, but potential for large number of appeals looms

August 13, 2020
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England’s chief exams regulator has written to university admissions departments asking them to be as “flexible as you can” as it was confirmed that 40 per cent of A-level results have been downgraded from teacher estimates.

In the letter to directors of admissions, Sally Collier, head of Ofqual, also asked for places to be held open for students when it is known that their results are subject to an appeal.

The process for awarding grades – this year based on calculated results because of the inability to sit exams during the coronavirus pandemic – has been thrown into confusion in recent days after the government introduced a last-minute “triple-lock” policy that would allow mock exams to be used as the basis for contesting results.

It means that universities could face a major deviation from the original numbers of placed applicants as some students ask for places to be held open – or look for alternative courses in clearing – on the basis that their grades might be overturned.

The first data on admissions decisions made before students saw their results show that there has been a record high for the number of 18-year-olds from the UK placed on to courses, 210,260, up 5 per cent on 2019.

In all, just over 30 per cent of all 18-year-olds have been accepted on to a course, which Ucas said was a new high and had happened despite that UK age group being 1.5 per cent smaller than it was last year.

Ucas also said a record 20,280 18-year-olds from the most disadvantaged areas in England had been placed on to a course – up 7.3 per cent on last year’s results day.

However, universities have been seeking “urgent clarification” about the likely scale of appeals since the triple-lock announcement was made late on 11 August, given its potential to upset admissions processes.

Institutions have been advising students who have missed the grades needed to secure a place not to panic and to contact their first-choice universities as they would be as flexible as possible given the circumstances.

This included the Russell Group of highly selective institutions, which said its “universities intend to adopt a flexible approach to admissions, within the limits of the student number controls set by government”.

Early indications from the data also suggest that the most selective universities have seen by far the largest increase in the number of applicants already placed ahead of the results being released.

According to Ucas, a total of 108,460 UK applicants had been placed on to courses at higher-tariff providers, a 7 per cent rise compared with the same point last year.

For applicants from England, the rise was 8 per cent, while medium-tariff providers saw a slight drop in placed applicants for results day. Applicants from England placed at lower-tariff providers were up 1 per cent.

All eyes will now be on the coming days to see how much churn there is in the figures resulting from the sudden changes announced in the past few days.

In a bid to shift away from the row over downgraded results, the government emphasised the increase in the number of placed applicants, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds, where much of the focus on downgrading is likely to be.

Education secretary Gavin Williamson said: “The majority of young people will have received a calculated grade today that enables them to progress to the destination they deserve, with the added safety net of being able to appeal on the basis of their mock results, as well as the chance of sitting autumn exams, thanks to our triple-lock process to ensure confidence and fairness in the system.”

However, Labour said that in the light of thousands of A-level results having been downgraded from teacher estimates, university admissions offices should be asked to be even more flexible.

“Ministers must act urgently to correct the injustice faced by so many young people today,” said shadow education secretary Kate Green.

“Students must be able to lodge their own appeals if they haven’t got the grade they deserved, and admissions teams must be forced to be more flexible. No student should see their dreams slip away because of this government’s inaction.”

simon.baker@timeshighereducation.com

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