UK universities brace for ‘significant’ A-level grade inflation

Government adjusts cap on medicine places to deal with demand

August 6, 2021
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“Significant” grade inflation caused by allowing A-level scores to be determined through teacher assessment will cause havoc on results day, English university experts have warned.

It came after the Westminster government announced that it would fund additional places in medicine and dentistry, following a 20 per cent increase in the number of students applying for these courses and amid signs that very few students would miss out on their required grades.

Universities received A-level results this week, and students will receive them on 10 August. Grades have been determined by students’ teachers, based on a range of factors including mock exams, after the exams were scrapped because of the pandemic.

The Westminster government has been hoping to avoid the havoc caused last year by applying an algorithm to predicted grades, which resulted in thousands of students, particularly in disadvantaged areas, receiving lower grades.

The subsequent U-turn threw university admissions into chaos as thousands of students, some of whom had already been rejected, were then given higher grades.

“It’s quite early in the cycle to be sure about grade inflation, but the early signs are that it will be significant,” said Richard Harvey, associate pro vice-chancellor of admissions at the University of East Anglia.

Admissions service Ucas reported that a record-breaking 311,000 18-year-olds from the UK had applied to universities this year. The January deadline for applying to university had passed by the time the government announced its plans for A-level grading.

“That puts universities in a bind as they will have too many people for the places available,” Professor Harvey explained. The pressure had been “particularly acute” for courses where the government caps numbers, such as medicine and dentistry.

The government’s announcement ahead of results day will mean that there are more than 9,000 places available for medicine and dentistry. In 2020-21, after the government fully removed the cap on places to deal with the U-turn fallout, there were just under 8,100 places in UK universities.

“For this academic year, universities that can accommodate an increase to medical and dentistry places for students that have met the grades and hold a firm offer at a university with pressure on places will be supported to do so,” the Department for Education said.

The University of Exeter had already resorted to offering candidates with offers to study medicine at the institution £10,000 and a year’s free accommodation if they deferred, a move prompted by a “significant upturn” in applicants putting it as first choice.

These sorts of solutions could work elsewhere, “but it’s expensive and, frankly, most students are very committed to studying now”, Professor Harvey said. Away from medicine, “popular universities might be able to flex their numbers, but it’s non-trivial to do in places with restricted capacities”.

This also could “destabilise the British university system”, he said. “Effectively, they are eating everyone else’s sandwiches…those at the bottom of the ladder lose revenue to those at the top. At UEA, in subjects other than the medical ones, I hope we can continue to be flexible, but I suspect we might be unusual.”

Mike Nicholson, director of undergraduate admissions at the University of Bath, said institutions that were heavily reliant on applications from the European Union, which have seen a big drop-off since Brexit, were likely to acquire more domestic students to fill their classrooms.

Some universities are clearly keen for the opportunity to scoop up more students who have received better-than-expected grades and “to encourage students to maybe trade up”, he said. King’s College London recently put out a tweet telling students who had exceeded the conditions of their offer that they might be eligible for adjustment.

Like other institutions, Bath had planned for some grade inflation. However, like other highly selective institutions, if there was significant grade inflation for certain A-level subjects, such as maths, that are required for a range of degrees “it could throw our calculations off”, he said.

One expert told Times Higher Education that the government “has left universities to deal with the problem [of A levels without exams] – again.”

The education secretary, Gavin Williamson, said: “Students have worked incredibly hard over the past 18 months, and we have continued to put their best interests first to ensure they can progress on to the next stage of their education, training or career.

“Medicine and dentistry have always been popular courses, and we have seen significant demand for places this year, alongside other subjects like engineering and nursing. We want to match student enthusiasm and ensure as many as possible can train this year to be the doctors and healthcare professionals of the future.”

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