We are going to change the way that we do the BU HE policy update to respond to current circumstances. No-one wants to receive a long bulletin on a Friday evening after a long week juggling working from home with all the other requirements on your time. And really, we need to discourage anyone from working at the weekend if you don’t have to.
So, we will move to publishing mid-week, probably Wednesday. However, as admissions are such a hot topic we are doing one last Friday update focussed only on admissions and the current state of affairs.
What on earth are we going to do about admissions
Since the summer exams were cancelled earlier this week, HE policy communications channels have been lit up with speculation, opinion and views about what might happen next.
The latest government guidance (afternoon of 20th March) says:
There will also be an option to sit an exam early in the next academic year for students who wish to.
Ofqual will develop and set out a process that will provide a calculated grade to each student which reflects their performance as fairly as possible, and will work with the exam boards to ensure this is consistently applied for all students.
- The exam boards will be asking teachers, who know their students well, to submit their judgement about the grade that they believe the student would have received if exams had gone ahead.
- To produce this, teachers will take into account a range of evidence and data including performance on mock exams and non-exam assessment – clear guidance on how to do this fairly and robustly will be provided to schools and colleges. The exam boards will then combine this information with other relevant data, including prior attainment, and use this information to produce a calculated grade for each student, which will be a best assessment of the work they have put in.
- … More information will be provided as soon as possible.
- The aim is to provide these calculated grades to students before the end of July. In terms of a permanent record, the grades will be indistinguishable from those provided in other years. We will also aim to ensure that the distribution of grades follows a similar pattern to that in other years, so that this year’s students do not face a systematic disadvantage as a consequence of these extraordinary circumstances.
- We recognise that some students may nevertheless feel disappointed that they haven’t been able to sit their exams. If they do not believe the correct process has been followed in their case they will be able to appeal on that basis. In addition, if they do not feel their calculated grade reflects their performance, they will have the opportunity to sit an exam at the earliest reasonable opportunity, once schools are open again. Students will also have the option to sit their exams in summer 2021.
- There is a very wide range of different vocational and technical qualifications as well as other academic qualifications for which students were expecting to sit exams this summer. These are offered by a large number of awarding organisations, and have differing assessment approaches – in many cases students will already have completed modules or non-exam assessment which could provide evidence to award a grade. We are encouraging these organisations to show the maximum possible flexibility and pragmatism to ensure students are not disadvantaged. Ofqual is working urgently with the sector to explore options and we will work with them to provide more details shortly.
- The Government will not publish any school or college level educational performance data based on tests, assessments or exams for 2020.
Issues raised include:
Does no exams = no results = students who want to, not being able to go to university either because they have to go back to school and do another year or because they are just left in some sort of limbo? Under the government plan some students might choose to go back and take exams later, or even in summer 2021. But most will end up with grades calculated using the new process.
Does no exams = no results = all existing offers become unconditional and we enter a mass clearing and adjustment process? As everyone will have a grade, this is not necessary. However, some universities seem to be already doing this in the meantime.
- The government doesn’t like unconditional offers because they think they are a form of “mis-selling” with students potentially being bamboozled into taking an offer from a university when they could go somewhere “better”, and because they then don’t try too hard with their A-levels. We have written about this before and remain unconvinced about either of these arguments, but this is why the OfS are doing a (now paused) review of admissions. If you are stuck at home with not enough to do, it is worth looking at the OfS questions, a new deadline will be set at some point and your policy team are co-ordinating a BU response (read more here).
- There was always going to be a risk that the Minister and the OfS would, retrospectively, require universities to inform them if they have done this and then criticise those institutions for “taking advantage” of the situation and “taking advantage” of student anxiety to get bums on seats and protect their financial position. Institutions will of course argue, not unreasonably, that they have done it to reassure students. But it is certainly too late to reverse it. And sure enough, after we wrote this, the OfS asked universities to pause making unconditional offers: Some universities and colleges have in recent days reportedly been making unconditional offers that may not be in students’ best interests. We are today asking that all universities and colleges pause unconditional or other offers that could disadvantage students. Given today’s reassurances there is no reason to depart from the normal admissions processes. All universities and colleges should work to put the student’s interest first.’
Does no exams = different assessment methods = wait until “results day” in August and carry on as normal – including a clearing and adjustment process once the results are out? This is what we have got.
- Students could simply have been given their predicted grades – this would have had the advantage that for those students already in the UCAS system these grades already exist. It has the disadvantage that they are notoriously inaccurate. They may have been “gamed” to help a student with an application to a super-elective university. They may not reflect the potential of a disadvantaged student. These things are problems in the current system. They are mitigated to some extent by adjustment and clearing – mitigations that would not be available if everyone was just given their predicted grades. Although simple, at least for HE, this did not look like a totally attractive solution.
So we have a new calculated grade process:
- Teachers will recommend a grade based on mocks and other non-exam assessment – using guidance from the DfE.
- Exam boards will moderate this using other data – including prior attainment (that suggests looking at GCSE for A-levels).
- The distribution of grades will follow a similar pattern to other years (“so this year’s students do not face a systematic disadvantage”, it says – but also no grade inflation either).
What does this mean for HE?
In theory, not much changes. Offer have been made, we will get grades a little bit earlier than usual, clearing can happen more or less as usual. But is it that simple?
- Research Professional on 20th March: Smita Jamdar, partner at the law firm Shakespeare Martineau, suggested to Playbook that if students were assessed in a new way, offers based on meeting a different kind of assessment would no longer be valid; from a legal perspective, the whole offer-making process would need to start again, although higher education institutions might still be able to come up with a practical solution. [We say: surely not – the government won’t want that to happen. Their announcement says: “ In terms of a permanent record, the grades will be indistinguishable from those provided in other years.”]
- The government plan while it aims to reduce some of the risks with using predicted grades, still potentially has problems in relation to disadvantaged students and Johnny Rich has a good thread on twitter on this
And what about the sector more generally?
- Will student numbers go down across the UK with a potentially devastating effect on some institutions? Even if the virus itself is in retreat by September it seems highly likely that international student numbers will go down as students across the world miss their own assessments, are unable to take language tests, are still subject to travel restrictions or are simply unwilling to take the risk and travel abroad for a while.
- That has led some to speculate that universities will be rushing to fill the corresponding gap in their budgets by recruiting additional UK students, leading potentially to a “rush to the top”. Remember that we are also at the bottom of the demographic dip.
- So will the government take steps to cap student numbers? There have been rumours that they are thinking of doing this anyway, although in a more sophisticated way than time would allow this year. [HEPI responded to the more general story on 19th March here]
- And will there be other financial support available for universities? Read Jim Dickinson on Wonkhe on 19th March here.
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