U-turn on A-level grades leaves university admissions in disarray

Government scraps cap on university places in England

August 17, 2020
U-turn sign painted on road

Universities in the UK have warned that they still might not be able to find a place for every eligible student this autumn despite the lifting of caps on numbers to accommodate a major U-turn on A-level grading.

Institutions were already facing major uncertainty about their student numbers after last-minute changes to the handling of school exam results led to the prospect of thousands of grades being overturned on appeal.

The publication of A-level results in England on 13 August brought confirmation that more than a quarter of a million results had been downgraded from teacher estimates as part of a standardisation process brought in to calculate grades after exams were cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

But after mounting pressure, England’s exam regulator, Ofqual, announced on 17 August that original teacher estimates would be accepted, a U-turn similar to that made in Scotland the week before. The Welsh government and the Northern Ireland executive also announced that teacher estimates would be accepted.

The moves left the university admissions process in chaos. As of the morning of 17 August, more than 190,000 UK 18-year-olds had been accepted on to their first-choice courses.

But a further 85,000 had either accepted other places or were still deciding on their next move – all students who might want to change their decision if the scrapping of standardisation leaves them with better grades.

Shortly after announcing the U-turn on grading, the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, said that a cap on university places introduced for English students this year would be scrapped as well.

Mary Curnock Cook, the former chief of admissions body Ucas, had said that lifting the cap had to be the “number one” priority after the U-turn given that so many students would now be eligible for a place.

But she added that the government also needed to understand that there was now a “massive heavy lifting” exercise for universities and Ucas because “substituting one set of results for another for around 300,000 students is a huge task”.

Even without a numbers cap, several people in the sector have warned that many universities might simply find it impossible to find enough places for students given physical constraints on some courses and accommodation considerations, especially as social distancing must be maintained on campus.

Tim Bradshaw, head of the Russell Group of highly selective universities, said its institutions had already “increased admissions plans so they can take more students this year” and had accepted students who “narrowly missed out on the grades they needed” before the U-turn.

However, he explained, there were “limits to what can be done by the university sector alone” on places “without stretching resources to the point that it undermines the experience for all, not to mention ensuring that students and staff are kept safe as we follow the steps needed to fight the Covid-19 pandemic”.

“There are also practical constraints on capacity for programmes that depend on specialist facilities or placements,” he said.

Matthew Andrews, university secretary and registrar at the University of Gloucestershire, said it “will be the case” that some courses around the country would be unable to take more applicants this year.

“There are some courses that will simply be full, and no matter how good-willed people are you can’t just fit more people in,” he said.

“One obvious thing that might be done is holding open a place for next year, but that then means a student could find themselves having a gap year they had made absolutely no plan for.”

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said the new policy “will be a huge headache for universities”.

“A usual admissions round lasts for months as institutions try to look at candidates as individuals and to make careful and considered judgements, as the government has previously urged them to do,” he said.

“If you rip up the rules after the results, institutions will do their best by their applicants but there are always limits…on how much they can expand – and that is doubly true when social distancing rules are in force.”

However, Mr Hillman added, the original results “were clearly too problematic to stand, and hopefully the new upset will be worth it, with more people getting on to the right course for them”, even if it was inevitable that some students “may need to wait until next year for a space on the course they most want, which is very far from ideal”.

A key concern had been that students from poorer backgrounds could be crowded out from the UK’s most selective universities because the Ofqual algorithm appeared to have favoured students from independent schools.

simon.baker@timeshighereducation.com

Please
or
to read this article.

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Related articles

Reader's comments (4)

Well most Uni managers will be happy to pack them in as it will save their jobs and bonuses. They will not care if it causes some academics extra stress...cash is king at too many UK Universities and the hit to foreign students numbers will mean most managers will regard this as an excellent outcome although they will not say this publicly.
It will be everyone's jobs that will be at stake in the forthcoming academic year not just managers'
These are difficult times and we all need to make compromises. The Government have made a major compromise, others must now adapt. The now rejected algorithm was not a "mistake" when the decision to use it was made in order to be "fair" to past students and institutions, as a way to "deflate" teachers' over optimism on grades for their individual students this year (which has happened every year to date) and usually ended up being balanced out by actual exam results, alongside a need to cap the total number of places. Political factors changed, loud protests from this year's exam takers and their families and teachers have silenced the fairness to former students and removed the cap on places. The late change of policy, which now puts this years individual students centre stage is far from perfect and while allowing more people to go to University in total it may not be, in the case of a specific individual, to the course or university of their first preference (unless they agree to wait a year). Universiites are unlikely to rescind places to those given the original grades they needed on the first round of grade allocations or to build extra capacity in one year for the resulting excess demand provided by the second round of grades this year. Social distance excuse makers must forgive me for dismissing their feeble comments. With on line learning / blended learning, I know of NO UNIVERSITY that is likely to take in fewer students this year than last because of the 1 / 2 metre rule.
I want to see that dratted 'algorithm' - without understanding it, how can anyone say how unfair it is? However, it appears to have been aiming at a goal of 'statistical fairness' - achieving an average and spread roughly comparable to previous years - rather that trying to treat individual students fairly. That's not good enough and it's no surprise that those students who have been disadvantaged are grumbling. (I have been answering Clearing calls so have heard my share of sob stories... as well as one Mom literally whooping with joy in the background when I was able to offer her son a place!) Perhaps those Oxford colleges who said they'd take everyone they'd made a conditional offer to irrespective of the grades the algorithm had given them had the right idea. Maybe we in universities were wrong to put any faith in OfQual meddling...

Sponsored