In this unprecedented year, it is quite difficult to find the right adjective for the events of the last week. The online thesaurus isn’t much help. In previous years, the bulk of the annual admissions, confirmation and clearing activity would be behind us by now: instead, we are essentially re-running elements of the process, and doing so against tight timescales.
Covid-19 closedown means that school examinations did not take place this year. Instead, government decided to ask the examinations regulator, Ofqual, to award A-level grades based on an algorithm which took into account teacher predicted grades, centre assessed grades and the school or college’s historical performance in public examinations. Results were published on Thursday 13th August, and it quickly became clear that something had gone wrong. There were several problems. Although the algorithm had determined a generally credible distribution of grades across the country, individual students’ grades were awry. Student predicted grades appeared to have been determined more by their school’s historic experience than by their own trajectory. Little attention had been paid to the profile of individuals’ grades – so students who might have seen their grades clustered at CCC were awarded CCU, because each subject grade had been calculated separately. It then transpired that teacher predictions had been upheld in relatively small cohorts whilst the national algorithm had been used on larger cohorts – which probably discriminated in favour of independent schools.
Over the weekend following political pressure mounted. It was clear that large numbers of students had been treated unjustly. Late on Monday afternoon, government made two decisions: first, it announced that students would be awarded their centre assessed grade or the Ofqual grade, whichever was the higher, and secondly it removed the student number cap which it had imposed on universities to secure stability in the system. The effect of this was to kick off a second round of confirmation and clearing activity. In practice, given the complexities of data sharing and administrative systems, universities did not receive centre assessed grades until Thursday afternoon.
The most important thing in all this unfortunate story is to focus on the thousands of students whose life chances were put at risk through the algorithm. In the short term, the university is looking to support students to make the right choices: some of those who accepted a place with us might want to move elsewhere; some who did not secure a place with us will want to come to study with us. It will take several days – perhaps longer – for universities to respond to every student. That will have knock on effects on the university’s provision. We have said that we will honour all offers we have made, and we will endeavour to accommodate all applicants with a September 2020 start. There will be impacts, still difficult to work through, on our budgets and plans, as there will be for every university. Our top priority is to ensure that we can respond to every student. We’ve had good feedback that our student-centred, reassuring engagement with students has been warmly welcomed. I spent a good deal of time last week on regional and national media appearances to get our message, and the sector’s message, out to as many people as possible.
But there are also some deeper policy issues which emerge from the last ten days. Within the next three months, government will be publishing a strategy paper on the future of universities. In recent weeks, it has expressed scepticism about growing higher education participation. Last week, ministers were phoning universities asking them to take more students. I hope the first thing government does now is to realise that working in partnership with universities as key national assets is the best way to think about the future. Government needs to be more collaborative with the sector.
Not far behind the pressures of this year are the challenges for next year. Next year’s A-level students have just spent six months out of school. If significant numbers of this year’s students are required to defer their university studies, the combination of the impact of a break in study and a squeeze on places could reduce opportunities for next year’s applicants. Government needs to support next year’s students.
And there is a long-term question about assessment which emerges from all of this. A-level reforms in 2015 shifted assessment wholly to end of course examinations: modular and coursework assessment was removed. The consequence of that decision was to leave A-levels dependent on a single point of failure. The vulnerability has been exposed. Government needs to revisit the structure of A-levels.
For the moment though, our focus is on our new and prospective students as our fantastic admissions team continues to work extremely hard, guiding applicants through confirmation and clearing with compassion, kindness and reassurance.