Do grade inflation and fair access mix?

Is it possible to combine fair access with the levels of grade inflation seen this year at level 3? OfS' director for fair access and participation Chris Millward makes the case.

Chris Millward is the Director for Fair Access and Participation in the Office for Students.

On paper, this year’s A level exam results are truly exceptional, with more students than ever getting A and A* grades. Then again, this has been a year where students have had it exceptionally tough.

There is much debate about grade inflation with top grades rising significantly again. Some say this reflects this year’s unique circumstances. Others say they diminish students’ achievement and threaten standards.

My view is that we need to give credit to students for their dedication through the disruption of the last 18 months, and to their teachers and families for their support.

As the fair access regulator in higher education, I am focused now on what this means for disadvantaged students, given the patterns starting to emerge. This is about a lot more than grade inflation – it’s about how inequalities across the country affect opportunities in education and throughout life.

Broken records

Early admissions data shows that 21 per cent of students from the most disadvantaged neighbourhoods have won a place at university. That is the biggest proportion we have ever seen at this stage of the admissions cycle. However, there has also been record admissions for students from the most advantaged neighbourhoods, with just under half of these students winning places.

This reflects large increases in students getting the top grades in London compared to other regions. It also reflects evidence from the Sutton Trust on how uneven levels of resources available to families and schools influenced study patterns during the pandemic, and from the Education Policy Institute on the effect this had on attainment gaps across the country.

So, we are improving opportunities for the most disadvantaged students – many of them from the post-industrial towns across the north and midlands and coastal towns that send the fewest students to university – but we’re a long way from equality of opportunity.

These regional and local differences flow from longstanding patterns of educational attainment and progression in places based on industries that did not historically require higher education. But they cause profound inequality of opportunity due to the premium on higher level knowledge and skills in the businesses and public services of the 21st century. Higher education is the most recognised currency in the modern labour market. That’s why demand is rising and governments are investing in universities worldwide.

Quality and opportunity

As the regulator for universities in England, we are concerned with ensuring that universities and colleges continue to deliver good quality courses, whilst improving equality of opportunity.

Many universities will have tried this year to give priority to students from disadvantaged neighbourhoods. But when grades are concentrated at the top, they find it harder to make room for talented students from these backgrounds who show potential, particularly if more students meet their initial entry requirements.

No doubt the government and the exams regulator will review how results have gone this year and consider their approach in the future. In higher education, though, I expect admissions decisions will focus on potential as much as achievement, and for students to enter with a wide range of qualifications and experiences.

Some students may not do well in traditional exams but thrive in a university setting. This could be due to the characteristics of the course, the degree of specialism, or the combination of theory and practice. They may have come to higher education later in life with professional and personal insights to inform their learning. These students must not be left behind by a narrow focus on 18 year-olds entering higher education based on school grades alone. They have just the same potential to shine.

With help from government – including funding additional medical places – universities have adapted so that most students have got their first choice place this year. Now they need to deliver on the expectation of a good level of in-person teaching, high-quality academic support and the full campus experience. By September, universities will want to understand the capabilities of this year’s students and provide the support and resources they need – particularly given the disruption to their final years in school.

This year’s entrants are just one part of the “Covid cohort” whose experiences have shone a light on deeper educational inequalities. We have a generational challenge ahead of us – to create education and assessment systems that are fair for everyone, regardless of background, route, or age.

Delivering on commitments

All universities and colleges that want to charge higher fees to their students need first to agree plans with the Office for Students to improve access and participation for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. These plans commit to achieving a step change in equality of opportunity not just in relation to access, but also success on course and progression into work, by 2025.

Given what we know about the impact of the pandemic on the most disadvantaged people and communities, it is more important than ever that universities deliver on these commitments. This requires strong support for students when they reach university, and sustained work to cut through the academic, financial and cultural barriers to getting into university and getting on after graduation.

We also need to capitalise on the new models emerging for lifelong learning which the OfS is testing from this year, and degree apprenticeships. These developments could re-invent the routes students take through post-compulsory education, creating more flexible pathways through courses that combine technical and academic, campus and work-based elements, enabling people to study alongside work and caring responsibilities, and at different points of their lives.

Education across all generations – from early years to schools and universities – has taken a significant hit during the pandemic, particularly for the most disadvantaged in our society. Ensuring quality education is accessible to all is one of the best ways we can boost our recovery from the pandemic and the prospects of thousands of hardworking students across the country.

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