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Is the sector really back in the government’s good books?

More money for university capacity seems out of character for a government keener to expand other post compulsory routes. But for Public First's Jonathan Simons, this may not be a change in policy
This article is more than 3 years old

Jonathan is a partner and head of education at Public First

One of the interesting things that has come from the last couple of weeks of exam back and forth has been the resurrection of universities in the eyes of government.

Indeed, following swiftly alongside the announcement that Centre Assessed Grades would be used for A levels this year came an announcement that the university student number cap would be lifted to allow previously downgraded students to attend university, and news that additional places in some key subjects would be funded. A university taskforce was also set up to manage this – for those not following too closely, a taskforce ranks below a gold command or the appointment of a tsar, but above a working party or a consultation.

A popularity contest?

It is worth pausing to reflect on this, because it isn’t immediately obvious that this course of action was inevitable. In another scenario, it would have been consistent for some in government to regret the difficulties caused, but look to expand degree apprenticeships for these young people, or other work based qualifications, or higher technical qualifications which could have been taken at college. That route is, as some recent speeches and briefings have made clear, seen by some in government as preferential, after all. So why, when the chips were down, was HE seen as part of the solution, and favoured by government?

Polling and other survey work consistently shows that young people (and their parents) mostly do want to go to HE. Even in the last few months amid Covid, and when it is clear that this September’s entry to HE will not be normal, work I’ve seen at Public First and more widely from parents, students, and employers has shown that people wanted their A level certificates to give them access to HE.

The purpose of a pass

Ofqual’s statutory responsibility to secure confidence in the exam system is partly a function of this. Polling and focus group work also shows that even parents who didn’t go to university think that A levels are principally used as a route to university. That’s why the articulate young people on the media talking about their downgraded qualifications and causing a political problem for the government were talking about their university places, more so than the actual merits of the grade itself.

Against that, the political crisis was only around a subset of 18 year olds. Although the BTEC delay caused a similar media stir, this was largely because it fit into an existing narrative. Had A levels passed without a hitch, BTEC delays would have been far less prominent. While around 300,000 young people sat A levels in summer 2019, a further 116,000 sat BTEC Level 3s, and although many of them use BTECs to go to HE, a greater number don’t. So the crisis was focused on universities because the principal qualification affected was the one used as entry to universities. There still remain a plurality of 18 year olds who do not go to university in the September of the year they turn 19.


The sector (led by the excellent work of Universities UK) did a very good lobbying job at quickly pointing out the knock on effects of A level disruption on to HE. By emphasising that the A level crisis was inextricably a university crisis – either if pupils remained downgraded or if there was grade inflation via use of CAGs – universities were well positioned to be part of the solution, especially when there was something seemingly very easy to do (abolish the numbers cap, and fund some extra places). More cynically, there was a trade off from some in government that moving to CAGs and funding some extra places and removing the number cap now placed the problem of finding places for everyone in universities’ laps, not government’s.

Of course, this was a decision made at great speed, by politicians and advisers who were tired, not always on top of the detail, and responding to acute media and political pressure which spoke to key emotional concerns of Conservatives. The default assumptions and revealed preferences of the media and advisers was that post 18 destinations meant university. The examples highlighted the unfairness of bright young people often from under performing schools or geographies, who were losing their opportunity to transform their lives through education.

Social mobility – in the way it is conceptualised most comfortably by this government – was at risk. This was a widespread crisis, with almost 40% of grades downgraded by the algorithm, meaning almost everyone in government knew someone affected by it, and hundreds of people were hit in every MPs constituency. Public opinion was unquestionably on the side of young people and teachers wanting to see remedy and for pupils to go to HE. The principal unfairness of the algorithm was that it denied agency and control to young people and it therefore wasn’t fair they were denied HE on this basis. There simply wasn’t the space for anyone to make the case inside government that perhaps this was an opportunity to consider tertiary destination routes in the round, and nor was there time to make that case publicly.

So, one in the eye for those who want fewer young people to go to university? Well, perhaps. But it’s perfectly possible to argue, as some key people in government will, that in a crisis among those who take the qualification as entry at HE, HE should be part of the solution – while also thinking that when looking across the 18 year old cohort as a whole, some rebalancing is needed. Augar, the CSR and the Skills White Paper still loom on the horizon.

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