Three things to remember about the applicants of 2021

As 2021's Level 3 results emerge, we should congratulate applicants and their teachers and help them thrive, says Helena Gillespie

Helena Gillespie is Professor of Learning and Teaching in Higher Education and Academic Director of Widening Participation at UEA

As the mid-August results week gets underway university admissions tutors are bracing for another week of high paced decision making.

For the sector, however, there are three things to consider that will continue to have an impact even after the admission round is complete.

What the hell am I doin’ here?

First, we need to make sure we are clear that we understand the pandemic is not young people’s fault – and their success is to be celebrated. The sector should make it clear to our incoming students that they deserve their success and they belong in our universities and colleges.

Despite the inevitable talk of grade inflation in the press, this years results have been defended by the head of the qualifications watchdog OFQUAL as “fair”. It is clear that although more students may receive higher grades, the accusations of grade inflation are unfounded given that the method for awarding the grades is fundamentally different this year.

In an attempt to avoid last years A-level marks debacle, the government issued guidance in February about how schools were to approach the award of grades using teacher generated marks. It is important to remember that these marks should not be compared in a statistical analysis to previous years because they were awarded in a fundamentally different way, with teachers using exam board mark schemes to assess student learning demonstrated in up to 6 different ways.

Although the exam boards perform a quality assurance role, there is to be no repeat of last years failed attempt to control the number of each category by using an algorithm.

There may be some questions about whether methods of awarding qualifications without norm referencing is valid. But where we stand on this really depends on how we regard the purpose of end-of-level-3 exams. If the intention is to assess how well students know and understand the content they were taught, then this year’s results stand up well, but if we see the purpose as a giant sorting hat exercise to establish where students should go next based on their relative attainment, then this year’s approach doesn’t work.

One issue that received less coverage than the A-level debacle last year was the very late issue of some BTEC results. Given that BTECs are often held by groups of students that the Office for Students identify as underrepresented in higher education, this was particularly problematic. This year we should see BTECs released in the same week as A-levels, and most students entering via an access course should also be able to be considered at the same time.

This is going to be vital for universities who access targets, and for some courses, these students make up a sizable majority. This gives admissions tutors a good chance of making it through the admissions round with fewer grey hairs than last year.

All about the outcomes

The second thing we should remember this week is that getting more students into college and university will be good for the economy long term – but only if we can ensure those students stay and are successful.

Given the huge economic shock caused by the pandemic, it looks likely we’ll be living with the national economic consequences for quite some time. To make sure we can pay all those future bills, we need a successful economy, and a well educated, skilled, globally aware workforce will be required. Under these circumstances I see very little problem with full universities and colleges. Given rates of youth unemployment at the moment, it may be argued that it is better for young people to remain in education if they can.

But there is a challenge for higher education. It isn’t enough just to admit these students, we actually have to be able to meet their needs. Given their disrupted experience of the last two academic years, these students are less likely to have covered the level 3 curriculum thoroughly and importantly also less likely to have been able to engage in the extra curricular activities that build the educational, social and cultural capital they need to be independent scholars in higher education.

Plans for induction, transitions support and extracurricular activities are going to be more important than ever. The opportunity for a good admissions round is balanced by a responsibility to make sure this unique cohort is properly taken care of.

Does more mean worse?

Finally, as we look to the future, is it true that future educational standards and opportunities are at risk because more students than ever get top grades this year? I doubt it. There is cautious optimism that given the success of the vaccine programme and the increased adaptability of the sector to cope with short term challenges, academic year 2021/22 should be undisrupted, and exams will go ahead next summer with norm referenced grading returning.

Of course there will be some longer term impacts. Despite the announcement last week of more funding for medicine courses, it seems likely that there will be increased oversubscription in this area for years to come. While it’s difficult to see a downside of having more doctors on their way to our overstretched health service, universities know that adjusting the funding cap won’t ultimately solve the biggest challenge for all health related courses, getting good quality placements.

We may also see some other long term impacts in higher education – such as an increase in commuting to local universities to maintain family support and an influx of mature students opting for career change in the wake of the pandemic. There has already been a surge in applications for teacher training courses.

Whatever lies ahead, we must remember that the class of 2021 have experienced a unique level of disruption and disadvantage. There is nothing to be gained from carping about the validity of their results. Instead we should congratulate them and their teachers and tutors and do our best to help them thrive in our colleges and universities.

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