How will the A-level U-turn affect UK university admissions?

Universities ask government for help as ‘grade inflation’ throws budgets into chaos

Last modified on Wed 19 Aug 2020 23.37 EDT

Universities, unions and professional bodies are all asking the government for clarity and help following the U-turns on exam grade awards to school-leavers across the UK.

Universities seeking ‘significant financial support

Universities UK, the sector’s representative body, has written to the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, to request “significant financial support from government to stabilise their finances”.

In the letter, the organisation said the decision to use centre-assessed grades (a teacher’s professional judgment of the most likely grade their student would have achieved had exams gone ahead) would “result in significant overall grade inflation”.

This, they said, would lead to an imbalance in the higher education intake this year, with some institutions having much bigger intakes than planned. The result would be increased costs, especially given social distancing measures on campus for in-person teaching.

Just as importantly, they said, some universities would now have lower student numbers than they had budgeted for, because more of their potential attendees would this year qualify for higher-ranking institutions.

Earlier this year the UK government set a cap on the number of university students in England, in an attempt to mitigate the financial impact of fewer international students – whose tuition fees subsidise places for domestic attendees – as a result of the Covid-19 crisis. The cap was partially dropped on Monday.

The Scottish government has already said it would meet “in full” the costs of providing additional places above the Scottish student cap of about 108,000 each year.

Clarity around the impact of deferrals on 2021

Universities have warned that students who, following the U-turn on centre-assessed grades, now have higher grades and have met their entry requirements, may be forced to defer entry, as there is no capacity for them.

Courses such as medicine and dentistry are particularly affected, owing to the laboratory and equipment requirements of the courses. The Royal College of GPs estimates the UK needs 20% more undergraduate medical places to serve the growing population, and wants caps on student numbers lifted, as well as extra funding for universities to help meet demand. Universities UK has also called for “increasing flexibilities within the medical student numbers cap”.

They will also, more broadly, be seeking clarification from the government on student numbers and funding for the next academic year, when the 2021 A-level cohort may find there are fewer university places available than usual because of the knock-on effect of more 2020 students deferring.

What impact will this have on social mobility?

Higher education has long been seen as an engine of social mobility in the UK, and it is poorer and more disadvantaged groups who have suffered twice-over during this crisis, first by being awarded downgraded exam results, then again by potentially missing out on oversubscribed courses that they now have the grades for.

The University and College Union (UCU) and National Union of Students (NUS) have written to Williamson to warn that lifting the student cap, flooding some courses with more students, “will likely lead to expanded recruitment at high-tariff institutions at the expense of lower-tariff universities, shifting the financial pain from the Covid crisis on to many of the institutions that play a vital role in widening participation and social mobility”.

A review of what has gone wrong – to avoid it happening again

While the government plans for schools and universities to be open throughout the next academic year, universities will want reassurance that if there is a return to a national lockdown, or a large number of local lockdowns that disrupt the exam season next year, the fiasco won’t be repeated.

Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), has written to the education secretary demanding a review to rebuild trust because “public confidence has been badly shaken”.

“It seems to be clear that the statistical model for moderating centre-assessed grades was flawed and that it produced many anomalous results. But how did this happen, why were the problems not foreseen, and why were ministers not on top of this? Most importantly, what lessons can we learn for the future?” he asked.

PA Media contributed to this report

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