V-cs join grade scrum

October 18, 2002

Students have had their faith sorely tested as A levels come under scrutiny and as many in higher education struggle to switch courses. The THES reports

Vice-chancellors are demanding a say in A-level standards after this year's grading fiasco, writes Alan Thomson.

Universities UK has asked for a meeting with the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority to discuss improving the system.

Baroness Warwick, chief executive of UUK, said: "The credibility of an exam system used for entry to university relies on consistency of standards and approach."

The regrading exercise was completed this week by former chief inspector of schools Mike Tomlinson. The government has promised to reimburse universities that have been affected financially. Students will also be reimbursed if out of pocket (see box).

In all, 1,945 students received higher grades in their AS and A levels after regrading. Of these, 1,089 had applied for higher education through the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service.

Of these, 689 had already been accepted by their first-choice institution. This left 400 students, of which 232 failed to receive any conditional offers.

As a result, 168 students are in a position to apply for a transfer to their first choice. They have until October 31 to switch.

Ucas said that 61 institutions could lose students as a result of transfers and that 45 could gain students. Four institutions could lose more than five students and 11 could gain more than five.

Mr Tomlinson said the QCA had failed to spell out AS and A2 standards in the two years since Curriculum 2000 was introduced.

Mr Tomlinson said: "What the system had not done, up to that point, was give enough clear and explicit guidance to boards and examiners."

All of the exams regraded were marked by the Oxford, Cambridge and RSA board (OCR). The OCR said that after three years of continuous pressure, the QCA had failed to produce a definition of the critical A2 standard.

Mr Tomlinson said that he had no evidence of political pressure on the examining boards to shift boundaries. Opposition parties have claimed that the government pressed boards to shift boundaries amid fears that a huge improvement in this year's grades would damage the credibility of A levels.

Mr Tomlinson said: "(The exam boards) certainly have to look at the impact of grade decisions on the cohort of students and I suspect that that was at the back of some minds. But I cannot find a paper trail beyond that."

He made recommendations for reform of the QCA in his interim report, including providing additional guidance on AS and A2 standards. Guidance will be ready by mid-November QCA chief executive Ken Boston has promised to "reinvent" the body. He chaired the inaugural meeting of his examinations task force this week. The task force includes headteachers' representatives and representatives from the Association of Colleges.

A QCA source said that blaming the organisation was unhelpful. The source said that, if anything, it was the government's fault for rushing in huge curriculum changes two years ago.

The source said that the QCA could not have issued guidance on standards until now because a full cycle of results had only just become available - the first cohort of students studying Curriculum 2000 have finished their A2s.

Education secretary Estelle Morris apologised to students on behalf of the education service in the Commons on Monday.


Regraded students who intend to transfer this year should present their new universities with receipts for expenses such as tuition fees paid and non-refundable accommodation deposits.

Students who have decided to take a year out before starting at their first-choice university next year should take their receipts to their current institution.

The closing date for reimbursement is January 31 2003.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England will make reimbursements where an institution suffersa net loss of income, for example by reimbursing a student's tuition fees.

Any significant shift in student numbers next year as a result of regrading will be taken into account in planning student numbers for 2003-04.

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