UK universities call for clarity on A-level assessment plan

Admissions officers say grade distribution will be a key issue for space-limited courses

January 12, 2021
Small white exams desks in a hall
Source: iStock

UK university admissions officers have said they need more clarity about the plan for replacing cancelled A-level exams to ensure that this year’s enrolment process runs smoothly.

Earlier this month, the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, announced that end-of-school exams would not go ahead as planned because of the disruption to schooling caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Exams watchdog Ofqual has been asked to draw up proposals for an alternative way of deciding results that will involve “trust in teachers, not in algorithms”, with plans expected to be set out by the end of February.

Mike Nicholson, director of undergraduate admissions for the University of Bath, said it was important for universities to know whether this would mean results day would be changed again, after it was originally pushed back this year to 29 August to allow for the challenge of running and marking an extensive in-person examination series.

“We need to know as soon as possible so we can ensure that teams are appropriately staffed up for running results confirmation and any subsequent clearing exercise that universities will operate,” he said.

The cancellation of A-level exams last year led to chaos in university admissions. When results were initially published, more than 250,000 results were downgraded from teacher-estimated grades as part of a standardisation process, but the algorithm was scrapped after it emerged that it was likely to penalise students from poorer backgrounds. This left tens of thousands of students potentially eligible for an offer for which they had previously been rejected – and with that place possibly having already been filled by another applicant.

Mr Nicholson said clarity was needed over grade distribution and how it will now operate if individual school- and college-assessed grades are being used with limited external moderation.

“This is a very important question at this point in the admissions cycle for popular and oversubscribed courses where there are limits on how many students can be admitted, such as medicine and nursing, as without knowing how many students are likely to get a particular set of grades it is hard to draw a line on how many offers to make to fill – but not overfill – a degree,” he said.

Richard Harvey, academic director of admissions at the University of East Anglia, agreed that medicine and other health subjects would be where the pressure was.

Already the pandemic has seen “young people rather nobly put themselves forward to help the NHS by becoming doctors and nurses, but places are controlled by the government and the NHS”, he said.

It is likely that the new way of calculating results will lead to grade inflation, and “indeed there is an argument for justice and fairness that the new system should be generous”, Professor Harvey said. However, he continued, “that will lead to a crunch in the demand subjects where we cannot overshoot numbers”.

Professor Harvey argued that “it would be helpful if the government allowed universities to recruit as many medics as they thought it safe”. Last year, the government agreed to fund additional medical places only after the A-level U-turn resulted in students missing out on places despite being awarded the right grades.

Matthew Andrews, university secretary and registrar at the University of Gloucestershire, agreed that it was important to secure the results release date but also said he hoped it would not then shift again because “we have had to accommodate the change in that later release and there’s more complication putting it back where it was”.

He warned against any more intervention from the government in the admissions process, which is already partly under way.

“Last year, we saw a number of attempts to manage the admissions process by direct intervention about types of offers that could be issues, when they could be issued and, of course, for student number controls,” Dr Andrews said. “I am very hopeful that the government doesn’t try to intervene again with the university admissions process. Ultimately it didn’t help, and clearly when we got to the summer they had to take back out the student number controls they put it in.

“The main thing is that the grades have to be a fair reflection of the student’s ability, and that is what we didn't see last year with the algorithm,” Dr Andrews continued. “I want students to be assured that universities know that students have had a difficult time and we will be as flexible as we can be to accommodate those difficult circumstances.”

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