David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

In a moment, everything changed.

A streak of ten years of norm-referenced A level grades has ended with the biggest rise in achievement on record. And a government that seemed committed to shrinking the higher education sector and advising students away from “low value courses” has unleashed the biggest recruitment frenzy England has ever seen.

DataHE: A level grades

Graph: DataHE

As England followed governments in Scotland, Wales and (for GCSEs so far) Northern Ireland in retreating from the calculated grades available on results day to the Centre Assessment Grades (CAGs) they had previously dismissed as unrealistically high, the UK Covid cohort achieved results that defy all records. Thousands of young people who feared the combined efforts of Covid-19 and the achievement of previous years had left their university dreams in tatters have now, with a single keystroke, largely met and exceeded their conditional offers.

Adjustment and loss

Many, of course, had taken places at other courses and other providers in the meantime. Through self-release, they can return to what will now be the largest ever UCAS Adjustment marketplace, or take up their original places at their firm offer. The abandonment of the cap means that university spaces are no longer at a premium, although physical and public health caps will still apply – there are only so many people you can fit into a socially distanced lab or seminar room, after all.

The reason we had a cap in the first place was to protect provider and student interest. Not every applicant will flourish at a selective provider running significantly above safe capacity, although the simplistic logic of DfE suggests that this would be the logical option. If this happens, many providers that have historically focused on widening access to HE local or national would be the ones to lose out on student recruitment. This may be a deliberate decision, based on what we know about DfE policy goals for HE. As I write we are unaware of any measures being taken to ameliorate these effects – the new “overall sector good” regulatory condition (Z3) does not apply in this situation, though providers that grow substantially could see questions raised about governance (E2) – and quality and standards (B1, B2) further forward.

UCAS will receive the revised results in due course, these will be circulated to providers as soon as they are available. The official advice is that applicants should avoid knee-jerk decisions, though some providers will doubtless accept reports of CAGs from applicants if they can verify these with schools. Providers are not permitted to proactively contact affected applicants, but the publicity over this U turn will likely generate a lot more calls and emails. Clearing data releases this week will be fascinating.

Pandemic pandemonium

This year’s new undergraduates will start a course primarily online, and perhaps living at home rather than on campus. It is to be recalled that we have no way of knowing how many second, third and fourth year undergraduates will enroll for their next year – or how many of the higher than expected international and postgraduate intake will actually pay their fee deposits and show up. Rumoured trends of undergraduates studying nearer home, or at the Open University at least for their first year, have yet to show up in the data. So the impact of unexpectedly wild recruitment swings will not be known for some time. Accommodation capacity will be one to watch – even if an initial offer is accepted with new grades, the promise of a place in (covid-safe) halls will be long gone.

Not since the introduction of £9,000 undergraduate fees in 2012 have we seen such a higher education policy leap in the dark. Today’s announcement is designed to reassure angry applicants and nervous backbench MPs, not university admissions officers. We don’t have a model that predicts how applicants will respond to this unique set of policy and practical pressures. The logistics of a larger (or smaller) than usual intake have an impact on the student experience, on university finances, and on public health. And not all applicants will get the place they’d hoped for. All we can do is watch and wait.

Admission of failure?

It is important to remember that these changes do not make 2020 results more equitable. There is a documented tendency for young people from a more privileged socio-economic background to achieve both better predicted and actual grades. With these two becoming (for one year only) one, the playing field is still not level.

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Two parallel reviews of university application processes, and rumoured government policy priorities, point towards a post-qualification application future. In 2020 are we seeing one last salute to the power of criterion-referenced predicted grades delivered by the “people who know candidates best” – their schools and their teachers? Or will this unheralded recognition of the validity of academic judgement mean that we haven’t seen the last of predicted grades just yet?

It might be that we never find an equitable way to run university admissions, but Monday’s activity has put the involvement of national norm-referencing algorithms (as used for A levels since 2010) into some question.

The politics of higher education

We should not be mistaken that Monday’s decisions are purely political. They demonstrate the problems of opinion polling – while university-bashing is generally popular with the red-wall base, moods change when your own children are the ones missing out. The impact of a large local employer in financial peril because of poorly-thought-through decision making should also not be underestimated on future public mood.

It turns out that applicants, their parents, and their teachers feel strongly about continued access to university – and polling of the general public suggests that abstract critiques (snowflakes and “low value” courses”) fade when there is a simple issue of fair play at stake. As generations of Conservatives have told us, what people want is to get on in life – and when access to opportunity is constrained and young people are not given a chance it is patently not fair.

There’s more that needs to be done to make things fair. We urgently need clarity on BTEC grades, Access to HE grades, and other qualifications. We need to reassure the 2021 cohort that they will not be disadvantaged by this uplift in 2020 grades, and that choice (including a full choice of provider and course) will be available to them too.

Universities need to be sure that they will be supported in offering the best possible experience to uncertain numbers new and existing students during a difficult time. They need the financial security to make the best choices to offer high quality, and safe, learning opportunities – and to continue to employ the academics and support staff that make this possible.

4 responses to “Fair grades are just a starting point

  1. Thanks. Sets out the issues nicely.

    One thing I’m confused on – when you say:
    ‘Not every applicant will flourish at a selective provider running significantly above safe capacity, although the simplistic logic of DfE suggests that this would be the logical option. If this happens, many providers that have historically focused on widening access to HE local or national would be the ones to lose out on student recruitment.’

    What is the ‘logical option’ you are referring to in this bit? What is the ‘this’? And why would widening access institutions lose out on recruitment?

  2. What I cannot find is whether or not the DfE press release of the 15th August – only four days ago now – is still valid when it says:

    “Using mock exams as a basis for appeals is part of the Government’s triple lock system for students, meaning they can progress with their calculated grade, appeal on the basis of a valid mock or sit an exam in the autumn”.

    Is there now a quadruple lock, or a different triple lock with CAGs replacing ‘valid’ mock exams?

  3. I should be interested to know how the algorithm grades vs central assessments in 2020 compared with examined A-Level grades vs teacher assessments in 2019 or previouis years. I know that the situation is different because the students in previous years were examined, but were the disappointments greater in 2020 than in 2019? Can you point me to a source of such data?

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