Universities in admissions turmoil after government’s exam results U-turn

The Education Secretary’s volte-face on Monday over this year’s exam results has left universities facing turmoil, with Oxford and Cambridge colleges about to let down 1,500 students.

After a storm of protest following the release of A-level results last week, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson announced on Monday that students this year will, after all, be awarded their teacher’s predicted grades if they are above those calculated by Ofqual’s statistical moderation algorithm.

Universities were then forced to withdraw their plans for this year’s admissions.

He explained that Number 10 had worked with the exam regulator, Ofqual, to devise “the fairest possible model” following the decision to cancel this year’s exams as part of the government’s COVID-19 containment measures.

However, it had now become apparent that the process had produced “more significant inconsistencies” than could be handled by an appeals process.

Ofqual’s algorithm was intended to moderate centre-assessed grades to prevent teachers from awarding “implausibly high” marks to their students.

However, the outcome of the moderation process appeared to penalise bright students from disadvantaged schools.

The U-turn will also apply to this year’s GCSE results, which will be published this Thursday.

Writing in the Telegraph, Mark Fenton, CEO of the Grammar School Heads Association, believes that while some form of moderation was in principle a sound idea, he and other school leaders were concerned about a lack of independent scrutiny over the standardisation model that Ofqual devised.

There would, he says, have been greater public confidence in the fairness of the process if Ofqual had published its model two to three months ago and allowed it to be subject to due analysis from expert statisticians.

Had that happened, a backlash may have been forestalled.

Fenton writes: “But that didn’t happen. In fact, we know now that Ofqual turned down an approach from The Royal Statistical Society in April to put independent statisticians on an advisory panel offering technical advice.”

Experts are now warning that universities will be inundated with applicants who will now meet the terms of their offer and will expect to begin their undergraduate studies at their chosen college.

Universities are cautioning that there will be a limit to what they can offer.

The recourse to teacher-only assessments will result in this year’s A-level results skewed by grade inflation of 12% overall, according to Ofqual’s calculations.

However, the UK’s most selective universities base admissions on the expectation that a significant proportion of the applicants will fail to attain the requisite grades.

The institutions have now dispensed more offers than they have places, the director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, Nick Hillman explained.

He added: “I suspect we might see a situation similar to where an aeroplane is overbooked and you get incentives to wait for the next plane. So you might see incentives for a deferment – first dibs on the best accommodation, bursaries and so on.”

Cambridge University has confirmed that it made approximately 4,500 offers this year for 3,450 places, while Oxford made approximately 3,900 offers for 3,287 available places.

Both have conceded that they will now have to offer some students deferred places, which Hillman says is likely to put a “double whammy” squeeze on available places next year, as international students will be returning.

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