‘We’re picking up the pieces’: a university vice-chancellor’s diary of A-level chaos

Wednesday 12 August

One day before A-level results. We are already on notice from the universities minister, Michelle Donelan, to “be lenient” about student admissions. I wake to find a statement from the Department for Education (DfE) timed 23.27 last night. With grammatical errors (so obviously written quickly), it changes the A-level results appeals process: schools can appeal on the basis of “mock” exams to create what government are calling a “triple lock” for students. Who decides what is a “mock” exam?

Thursday 13 August

Results day arrives on an almost deserted campus. Early start for the admissions team managing our remote clearing operation. It’s always a day of frenetic teamwork after phone lines open at 6.30am. The first call comes at 6.31am. This year clearing is complicated. Alongside our budgets and plans we have a “timetable map” to make sure students will fit into a socially distanced campus and we have a government student number control – if universities exceed that, they face huge fines. We need to steer thousands of students between the timetable map and the number control at high speed.

By mid-morning staff are talking to hundreds of students: some overjoyed, some deeply upset. But we pick up something we’ve not seen before: alongside the joy and disappointment, students are telling us that these results aren’t just unexpected, but unfair. Their grades are wildly awry. Something is not right.

Michelle Donelan phones vice-chancellors to check they are being lenient. One of the clearing team signs off saying: “I always enjoy this day – but it leaves me exhausted and desperate for a rest.” “You can have a rest now,” I say.

Friday 14 August

The morning after results day, our admissions position is usually clear. National admissions databases have updated overnight so we run our own (tried and tested!) algorithm to predict numbers. Overall, we are confident that numbers are looking good thanks to our careful planning.

The weekend

Something which was not right is now badly wrong. Students who have been denied university places due to an equation dominate media coverage. The exam regulator, Ofqual, defends its approach – but fails to see the gap between a reliable national picture and individual experiences. Students in some schools have been given not the C grade they were predicted, but are ungraded – the difference between disappointment and hope-destroying dejection. Government and Ofqual were so hung up on “grade inflation” they forgot that exam grades are about young people’s life chances. Ofqual blindsides everyone by withdrawing appeals guidance. It (or its lawyers) realise that there is no watertight definition of a “mock” exam (the point of mockery, of course, is that it is not real).

Monday 17 August

It’s clear that government will have to do something decisive – but exactly what is not clear. Anything it does now will intensify chaos. Blaming Ofqual is not solving anything, but suddenly every Tory MP is an expert on algorithms. Perhaps most humiliating for Gavin Williamson [the education secretary], he is widely portrayed as Frank Spencer from Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em. Rumours fly, but are not confirmed till 4pm. Government throws Ofqual, and its grades, under a passing (empty) bus. Students can now be admitted on unmoderated grades schools submitted to exam boards, if they are higher than the Ofqual grade. With just enough delay to make everyone wonder how this will work in practice, government abolishes the student number control it imposed on universities just weeks ago.

The “triple lock” has been unpicked with Houdini-like speed by 18-year-olds. Ministers obsessed with standards have allowed grade hyperinflation. Clearing is being restarted when it should be over. Universities start to pick up the pieces. Meanwhile, thousands of students entering university with vocational BTec qualifications face the same situation. Nothing is yet done for them.

Tuesday 18 August

We survey the wreckage. A month ago government worried about “too many” students going to university; now ministers phone asking us to take more. One of my team suggests we offer Gavin Williamson a place to study mathematics as he needs to understand algorithms, and soon may be at a loose end. We pull our exhausted clearing team back together. We reopen phone lines. Students whose confidence was smashed last Thursday need to be contacted and reassured. Numbers on some courses rocket. We try to calculate if there is room for everyone. Other numbers fall as students look elsewhere. Six months’ planning is shredded. Departmental budgets are meaningless. Estate plans are torn up. Grades can’t be checked as details of centre-assessed grades won’t arrive in universities until Thursday (“hopefully” as Ucas, the admissions service, adds).

Wednesday 19 August

I speak to fellow vice-chancellors, swapping perplexing tales of chaos, uncertainty and exhaustion. No one knows what the implications of this mess will be. Everyone is dazed. Another last-minute announcement comes – this time, the BTec results have been pulled just before they were to be released, leaving more students and universities in limbo, their futures undermined by incompetence and an astonishing lack of compassion. Over these 10 days, students’ futures were risked by poor planning, inadequate consultation and failures of basic understanding by politicians now casting around for someone else to blame. All governments have to deal with the unpredictable; this was not just predictable but expected. Something that could have been avoided went horribly, horribly wrong, and all within four weeks of term starting.

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