A Levels: Government’s U-Turn Has Left Universities in the Lurch

Jerri-Lynn here. NC and Yves in particular have discussed the strains the COVID-19 pandemic is placeing on US universities, many of which are under financial stress, and rely heavily on high fee-paying foreign students to sustain themselves. These stresses are by no means confined to US universities, but also extend to other universities that also have significant cohorts  of high-paying foreigners among their student populations.

This post primarily focuses on how the A-level debacle is exacerbating financial pressures on UK universities. But I note that the primary cause of the debacle was a flawed algorithm, which had an outsized effect on the exam results of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and the impact of which was exacerbated by the government’s inept response.

By Catherine Carroll-Meehan, Head of School of Education and Sociology (EDSOC). Originally published at The Conversation.

The UK government has performed a U-turn on A level exam grades, awarding students in England the marks given by teacher assessment where they are higher than the moderated grades adjusted by what the government now admits was a flawed algorithm. While this is a source of relief for many students, it leaves many universities facing more uncertainty about student numbers and their financial future – with ramifications that may last for years.

On the morning of Thursday August 13, many students – in many cases from disadvantaged backgrounds – woke up to find results that did not reflect their mock exam results or grades predicted by their teachers.

The algorithm developed by Ofqual to prevent grade inflation as a result of teacher-awarded marks resulted in nearly 40% of marks being lowered. For some students, this meant that they had failed to meet the entry requirements for their preferred university course.

As soon as the A level results were out, universities opened phone lines for the clearing process, as they do every year – offering remaining places on under-subscribed courses to students who missed out due to lower than expected grades.

Thousands of disappointed students began to contact universities, hoping to salvage their dreams of higher education. Universities responded to students’ clearing applications by looking at individual profiles, awarded marks, predicted grades and personal statements to make a judgement about offers. Universities are keen to make offers to students that match their aspirations, as well as using their academic achievements as a guide for engagement and success with their studies.

Then, on Monday August 17 – after a weekend of pressure – the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, announced that England would follow the example of Scotland and award grades based on teacher assessment. Northern Ireland and Wales also made the same move on August 17.

But the university places that were decided in the five days before this reverse – when the government declared that there would be no U-turn in England – have now been thrown into doubt.

Challenges for Universities

Universities are already suffering the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. Across the higher education sector, universities have been bracing for the expected reduction of international students. An over-reliance on international students to balance budgets has left some gaping holes.

In the past six months, there have been warnings that the financial viability of some universities is at risk. Some institutions have taken extreme measures, such as large-scale redundancies, to avoid going bankrupt.

At the same time, the sector in the UK was preparing itself for the lowest point of what is known as the “demographic dip”. The population of 18 year-olds has been decreasing since 2017 and 2020 is predicted as the lowest point before a predicted increase in 2021 and again in 2022. The population of 18 year-olds is expected to steadily increase until 2030.

Now, the U-turn on A level results has created unprecedented uncertainty. The late decision, five days into the clearing process, has meant that offers that were confirmed following results day may now be overturned.

Disappointed students accepted places, selected accommodation and had begun to adjust to their choice at universities that may not have been their first preference. They now have the option to revisit their first choice.

Universities do not know what impact this will have. Many top-tier universities are fully subscribed and students are being told that their offer will be honoured – but not until 2021. This presents a challenge to offer holders: whether to accept a place at an institution that wasn’t their first choice, so that they can start university now, or wait 12 months with limited employment prospects and no gap-year travel.

Some students may even elect to take exams in the autumn rather than taking the teacher-assessed grades they have been given, looking to win entry to their first-choice university in 2021.

Winners and Losers

There will be some winners and losers in the A level debacle. The Department of Education has opted to remove student number caps, introduced by the government during the coronavirus pandemic to stop universities making unconditional offers and to ensure a fair distribution of students across the sector.

This means that some universities will be able to over-recruit, and others will lose students to more “prestigious” institutions. This may result in smaller student cohorts at some universities and non-viable numbers for some courses, putting jobs at risk.

For some universities this may be catastrophic. The UK government needs to ensure that universities are funded appropriately at this time to ensure their continued financial viability – especially for those in towns and cities where the presence of a university is a way to support social mobility and aspiration for the whole community.


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  1. The Rev Kev

    Universities in Oz are in the lurch too. But mainly because they turned themselves into an education industry rather than an actual university. The life blood of the universities became international students but when the pandemic stopped them coming in large numbers, that left them swinging in the breeze.

    1. w

      True, but not universally. UNE (my uni) has little dependence on overseas students. This hasn’t stopped management from acting as if this were not the case and trying to cut 200 jobs as well as obliterating the academic/professional staff distinction. University elite management are a toxic bubble-dwelling smugification of self-directed avarice, with no connection, understanding or concern for students or education, but rather a contempt for all three.

  2. HotFlash

    Hmmm. Adjusted grades, adjusted exit polls. If students learn that the game is rigged, and by whom, that might be the most important thing they ever learn.

  3. Ignacio

    An algorithm that automatically downgrades the assessments that politicians do about themselves would be much more useful.

  4. FredBloggs

    Nobody is talking about the Teacher Assessed Grades and the flaws in them. Teachers put in a lot of work but in many many cases arrived at grades well away from their previous ‘Predictions’ for the pupil. The latter, crucially, were used to select Unis and accept offers. The assessed grades were developed via some kind of homemade rubric but of course always with one eye on the overall distribution of grades. If they felt a need to award an A* (to an Oxbridge candidate?) then invariably they would have to sacrifice a pupil by lowering their predicted grade to achieve the required stats. Thus the Teachers condemned the pupil to either no Uni, a clearing place at a lesser Uni or take the exams in the following year. The offer of exams in October aren’t really attractive as most schools told the kids to stop work back in March, and an October exam is no different from one the following July except you could spend a year travelling instead of swatting.

    From my own experience I can tell you that Teachers are very happy to have played judge and jury and almost immediately have accepted their estimate as a ‘real’ grade. They feel no responsibility to assist with a pupil whom they have cast into a black hole. They also talk of ‘Resits’ whereas it is of course simple a ‘Sit’. It has give us a glimpse of what the world would be like if Teacher Assessment was the primary grading method. Long live exams and may every student get their day in one – perhaps disappointing or surprising their teachers!

      1. Jokerstein

        It’s just the same on pretty much every BBC story about A-levels – always girls, never boys.

    1. Yves Smith

      Thanks for pointing that out. I am just about certain the Creative Commons license cannot cover stock photos because the holder of the IP (Shutterstock) did not convey the rights for their reuse. So I ripped them out.

  5. periol

    “Many top-tier universities are fully subscribed and students are being told that their offer will be honoured – but not until 2021.”

    This is the one silver-lining I see for the students initially passed over. I realize COVID-19 isn’t as dire in England at the moment, but I would happily take a year off and hope the pandemic is gone for good next fall.

    The rest is terrible. Those poor kids.

  6. Matthew G. Saroff

    Let me put on my hat and say that the way that the algorithms failed was in part intentional: It was intended to keep the lower-class students down.

    That’s the Tories in a nut shell.

    1. lyman alpha blob

      Using algorithms to assign grades is a terrible idea in any circumstance – they do it with my elementary school student and the report card is largely incomprehensible, unless you want to take a course in ridiculous education administrator jargon first in order to be able to read it.

      Grades are subjective and always will be, no matter what algorithm is used. Because the algorithms are very subjective too, imbued with all the biases of their creators, intentional or otherwise. The grading algorithm in our district actually gave better overall grades to students who did very poorly early on but later improved than it gave to students who got As the whole semester from the get-go. Needless to say, that didn’t go over with parents well at all.

      Let the teachers teach and assign the grades they see fit. One of the best teachers I ever had drilled into us that grades didn’t matter anyway – no one was ever going to remember or care in 20 years what grade you got on any given course. What you learn is what matters. If you failed the initial assignments but got As later on, you were going to get a C in this guy’s class (not an A like the asinine algos our district uses) but all that really mattered is that you knew how to do differential equations once you were done.

      Of course, the administrators at my school fired that professor.

  7. Uri

    It doesnt matter that a Tory government is messing with the future of children. What matters is Brexit. Nothing else matters.

  8. rtah100

    The denunciation of the algorithm is overwrought.

    My father in law, former maths teacher and school deputy head, I.e. COO figure who makes all the processes run, says that the 40% adjustment down in 2020 is less than in previous years (2019, only 16% of grades were unadjusted and the process assumes a normal distribution ergo 42% were adjusted down).

    Also, non UK readers may not realise that UK has competing exam in the same subject but of very different rigour. Some used to be entirely modular and could be taken in small bites over the two years and any poor results resat repeatedly. Some were all coursework! Some (mainly Oxford and Cambridge Board) were traditional one-attempt multi-hour exam format

    Allegedly an A level grade is consistent between the boards but *nobody* believes this and the system had to be reformed a few years back as the Universities stopped believing it too and started weighting some boards’ exams preferentially. Soo there has always been a lot of noise in the grading and opaque reconciliation of marks between boards.

    And the absurdity that every year the average mark gets better!

    1. vlade

      This is actually the problem with across-the-board tests.

      They sound like a good idea, but really aren’t.

      You have two options to start with:
      – tests are the same across the board
      – or not

      The first option means teaching to the tests, not teaching what needs to be taught, and since no test can cover all that needs to be taught, it immediately means prioritising knowledge, which will always be subjective (and the subjective priorities if employers, universities and test setters usually differ a lot).

      The second option means you have no clue what, and how is being tested.

      Then there’s the administration of tests and checking results. In-school or independent? Again, both have problems that aren’t easy to solve (which basically again boil to centralised vs decentralised).

      But the society is dead-set on testing, for some reason, so that people can “show the paper”.

      I don’t get it. IMO, if there should be testing (and normal knowledge sit-down tests aren’t a good predictor of academic or employment success), it’d be entrance testing. That has its problems as well, but at least usually tends to be relavant to the instution you’re trying to enter (college/uni/employer), as opposed to total irrelevance.

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