‘Quite straightforward’ to delay start of 2021-22 academic year

Universities minister says campuses can be flexible in their start date, ahead of statement from education secretary on whether A levels will be pushed back

October 6, 2020
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It would be “quite straightforward” for English higher education institutions to push back the start of the 2021-22 academic year if A-level exams were to be delayed, the universities minister has said.

Appearing before the House of Commons Education Select Committee, Michelle Donelan was asked whether next year’s A levels would be delayed to accommodate the disruption to learning caused by the coronavirus pandemic and how this would affect university terms.

Ms Donelan said that Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, who previously said he was working with exams regulator Ofqual about a potential “short delay”, would make an announcement on next year’s exams in the coming weeks.

Labour have called for exams to be pushed back from May to July to allow more catch-up teaching time.

“If term time needs to be moved slightly to accommodate any potential change in examinations, that is something that can be done quite straightforwardly,” Ms Donelan said. “We have the lead time to do anything that the secretary of state may announce; the flexibility is there.

“The message I have got from universities is that they are prepared to be as flexible on as possible to facilitate a smooth running for students.”

Ms Donelan added that the intentions of the Department for Education was that “those exams are as fair as possible, given what those students have been through and continue to go through”.

Asked about concerns that it would be harder for next year’s A-level students to get a place at university as this year’s students saw their grades boosted via the use of teacher-assessed marks, meaning there were more eligible applicants than places available, Ms Donelan said there were currently only 800 students who had to be offered a deferred place this year.

“Deferrals went up by on 0.2 per cent,” she said. She added that the DfE would continue to work with universities “to build extra capacity so that students from this cohort aren’t disadvantaged”.

Ms Donelan also said that no universities had made use of the government’s restructuring regime, which set out the conditions for universities to take out emergency loans if they are needed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

However, those loans would come with certain strings attached that were considered by some as a threat to institutional autonomy, including a promise to shift towards science courses and commitment to make sure student union funding is “proportionate” and not funding student activism.

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

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