Higher education chaos looms as students could try to get back into institutions that rejected them

Universities were frantically trying to unravel the Government’s exams U-turn last night as experts warned that 55,000 students might now try to switch back to institutions that rejected them.

The industry’s main umbrella body said universities were seeking ‘urgent clarification’ on how to accommodate students they had earlier refused because of A-level results downgrades.

Ministers last night lifted a temporary recruitment cap designed to prevent the most popular universities from hoovering up students at the expense of less popular institutions.

However, universities suggested they might not have space for all the students they had earlier turned down due to space constraints and the new demands of social distancing.

And now thousands of bright students could be let down by Britain’s top universities as they run out of spaces for everyone they offered places to. 

Gavin Williamson last night said the Government would expect universities to try to ‘build as much capacity’ as possible so students could make their first-choice offers – although detailed plans do not yet exist.

Gavin Williamson last night said the Government would expect universities to try to ‘build as much capacity’ as possible so students could make their first-choice offers – although detailed plans do not yet exist

The Education Secretary said: ‘We expect universities to be flexible and to go above and beyond to be able to honour those commitments… that’s why today we’ve lifted student numbers caps in order for universities to be able to expand put extra capacity into the system.’ 

Up to 1,500 potential Oxbridge students could miss out on going to one of the ancient universities.

It is thought that Cambridge University extended offers to around 4,500 pupils but only has 3,450 places.

Oxford made around made about 3,900 offers for an expected 3,287 places, reported the Daily Telegraph.

Both Oxford and Cambridge have already said some applicants will have to take deferred places as they do not have spaces for everyone to start in the autumn.

This came as students in next year’s cohort have already expressed concerns about the knock on effect of deferred places on their chances of getting into top institutions.

A large number of this year’s students deferring will limit the number of places available for the 2021 intake.

One parent of a daughter who plans to apply to Cambridge told the Times: ‘I’m pleased for the kids who have been through this but what happens now?

‘I cannot see how she doesn’t face an even bigger uphill battle to get a place if some of them have already been earmarked for this year’s students.’

In a statement, Ucas – the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service – did not offer a guarantee for youngsters to get a place at their first choice destination.

It means the U-turn threatens to throw struggling admissions departments into disarray over the coming days as they try to resolve the crisis.

Lucy is off to Cambridge after government’s grades U-turn 

Lucy Lipfriend now has the grades for a place at Cambridge University.

The 19-year-old had been given teacher-assessed grades of A*AA, before the Government’s computer algorithm downgraded her to three Bs.

But after yesterday’s U-turn, the teenager has achieved the grades she needed to study theology, religion and philosophy at Clare College.

The past few days have been a ‘whirlwind’ but Lucy now has a place at her ‘dream’ university.

She said: ‘I haven’t heard anything yet from Ucas or Cambridge yet so it’s not fully sunk in yet.’

Lucy Lipfriend now has the grades for a place at Cambridge University

Lucy Lipfriend now has the grades for a place at Cambridge University

Lucy had originally planned to appeal her grades, as she believes the algorithm downgraded her after a poor performance in last year’s A-level exams when her mother was ill.

Lucy planned to take them again this year.

After exams were cancelled, her former teachers submitted centre assessed grades of A*AA. Three private tutors predicted three A*s.

And Lexie Bell said she is ‘relieved’ the Government has ‘finally seen sense’.

The 18-year-old’s centre-assessed grades of A*s in English and religious education and an A in psychology had been ‘unfairly’ downgraded to ABB.

The pupil, from Shoeburyness High School in Southend-on-Sea, said she felt ‘survivor’s guilt’ after Sussex University held its offer despite her dip in grades.

‘I’m relieved the government and Ofqual have finally seen sense,’ says 18-year-old set for three A*s 

Lexie Bell said she is ‘relieved’ that the government and Ofqual have ‘finally seen sense’.

The 18-year-old’s centre assessed grades of A*s in English and Religious Education and an A in psychology had been ‘unfairly’ downgraded.

Lexie Bell said she is ‘relieved’ that the government and Ofqual have ‘finally seen sense’

Lexie Bell said she is ‘relieved’ that the government and Ofqual have ‘finally seen sense’

Ofqual’s standardisation process meant that her grades in English and RE were both reduced to B’s. The pupil from Shoeburyness High School in Southend-on-Sea received an A for psychology.

But she felt ‘survivor’s guilt’ after Sussex University held its offer despite her unexpected dip in grades.

Her father Michael Bell, 53, CEO of a charity, said: ‘Lexie was lucky, she still got her offer given to her even though she didn’t meet the offer grades.

‘But there was an element of survivor’s guilt there because she realised she was going to be okay but clearly lots of people weren’t going to be.

‘She is relived that the government and Ofqual have finally seen sense.

‘There is definitely a sense of relief on behalf of the students who have been affected by this in a far more difficult way because they have lost their places at university.’ Mr Bell, who is attempting to launch a judicial review of the A-level system, added that the U-Turn is ‘too little too late’.

‘It’s about time but it should never have got this far,’ he said.

‘If you want my honest opinion we should be seeing resignations from Ofqual and from the government – they should be ashamed of themselves.’

Mary Curnock Cook, former head of Ucas, last night predicted ‘chaos’ due to the ‘extra volume’ of students, which she estimated at 55,000, now trying to switch to their first-choice destinations.

The key questions and answers in the government’s exam grade saga

What was the original plan?

After exams were cancelled, Ofqual, the exam regulator, asked teachers to submit grades for students and list them in order of ability. However, it was apparent that many had been overly optimistic. It was decided that more reliance would need to be placed on statistical modelling – or ‘standardisation’. This led to the algorithm which was used to calculate grades.

Why was this controversial?

A huge proportion of teachers’ predictions were deemed useless. A school’s performance in previous years played a greater role – reducing 40 per cent of A-levels, and an even higher proportion of GCSEs. The system penalised students at low-performing schools in poor areas. Its aim was only to preserve existing trends – including educational inequality.

What has now changed?

Before yesterday’s U-turn, Ofqual loosened its strict criteria on appeals, saying schools could challenge results.

But the onus on schools to submit evidence that their grades were wrong meant the row deepened. The Scottish government was first to U-turn, promising to restore the original teacher predictions. Westminster came up with a ‘triple lock’ guarantee, meaning pupils could fall back on mock exam grades or take fresh papers in October. But after a weekend of confusion, it announced England would also allow teachers’ grades.

How will they get new grades?

Guidance is yet to be issued by the Department for Education, but it is assumed that boards will send out new exam certificates in the coming days for A-level students. The Government has said GCSE results will not be delayed, so they should also reflect teachers’ grades.

Can students still appeal?

The Government hopes the vast majority of appeals will now be dropped. Gavin Williamson indicated appeals would need to be based on ‘bias and discrimination’. But full guidance is yet to be released.

What about universities?

Universities demanded ‘urgent clarification’ on how they could be expected to accommodate a wave of extra students with upgraded marks.

Although the Education Secretary is lifting the student numbers cap, universities may find they are fully subscribed and the only option is to defer places. Mr Williamson said he expected universities to be ‘flexible’ and ‘honour the commitments’ to students who now have better grades. There is no detail yet on how the system will work, having already been under massive strain.


Those with offers for some of the most competitive universities, including Oxford and Cambridge, are expected to be the most likely to be told to defer for a year if they want to go to their original first choice. 

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said universities will ‘only be able to fit a certain number of people before social distancing becomes impossible’.

He also flagged concerns around ‘physical capacity’ and the number of teaching staff universities would need to accommodate all students.

Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK, warned that the sector needed ‘urgent clarification’ on a ‘number of crucial issues’ immediately.

He said: ‘The events and confusion of recent days have added further uncertainty and distress to students who have already faced many difficulties as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

‘Universities will do everything they can to work through these issues in the days ahead. The Government will need to step up and support universities through the challenges created by this late policy change.’

The prestigious Russell Group of universities also demanded answers on how they should deal with the surfeit of new students.

Dr Tim Bradshaw, the group’s chief executive said: ‘We know the changing situation is creating uncertainty for students and universities.

‘However there are limits to what can be done by the university sector alone… We now need urgent clarification from Government on the additional support it will provide to help universities with the expected increases in student numbers, particularly for high cost subjects such as chemistry, medicine and engineering.’

Ucas pointed out that at present, 69 per cent of 18-year-old applicants had been placed with their first-choice university – a higher percentage than last year.

It advised students who had been rejected from their first choice university because of the A-level downgrades not to rush into a decision about what to do next, and said it would issue further advice to students and schools.

The Government introduced a one-year student numbers cap to limit the number of domestic undergraduates each university could take, preventing less popular universities from losing out in a smaller student market during the pandemic.

This cap has since been ditched. Some universities, including Buckingham, had already pledged to take applicants who missed their grades before yesterday’s U-turn, with a few Oxford colleges taking the same decision.

Professor Alan Smithers of Buckingham University agreed the decision will ‘create major difficulties’.

He said: ‘Many will have already filled their places, as they make more offers than they expect to admit.’

And the University and College Union said admissions staff were already facing ‘unbearable workloads’, with general secretary Jo Grady saying the ‘political incompetence is unforgivable’.

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: ‘The big question remains as to why this decision has taken so long to come, as it may already be too late for some… who have already missed out on their first choice of university and course.’

Dr Simon Hyde, the incoming general secretary of the Headmasters’ and Headmistress’ Conference said the U-turn is ‘not perfect, but it will do’, but called for ‘urgent clarity’ on university admissions.

Student who stood to miss out on £16,000 scholarship is ‘thankful’ over Government’s grades U-turn 

A student who stood to miss out on a £16,000 scholarship has said she is ‘thankful’ and ‘excited’ about the Government’s U-turn.

Jess Johnson, 18, needed an A in English to earn a place at St Andrews studying her chosen subject

Jess Johnson, 18, needed an A in English to earn a place at St Andrews studying her chosen subject

Jess Johnson, 18, needed an A in English to earn a place at St Andrews studying her chosen subject, along with a £4,000-a-year scholarship, but she was downgraded from her predicted A to a B and was initially told she had been rejected.

Now, after the Government announced A-level results will be based on teachers’ assessments, that decision is set to be reversed.

Jess, who studied at Ashton Sixth Form College in Greater Manchester, said: ‘I am very thankful for that.

‘I’m very excited about that, I’m glad they made the change.

‘I think it would have been unfair if (Northern) Ireland, Scotland and Wales made the change and we didn’t, so I’m very glad.’ She questioned why the change had taken so long, coming four days after results were released on Thursday.

‘It should have been changed a few days ago to be honest,’ she said. ‘It’s caused a lot of stress and anxiety that it didn’t need to by making us wait..’ Jess won the Orwell Youth Prize in 2019 for her short story A Band Apart.

The dystopian fiction was about an algorithm that sorted students into bands based on class.


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