A-level results row: Universities face admissions 'chaos' as government U-turn forces them to take more students

August 18, 2020

Universities have been plunged into admissions "chaos" following the government's late U-turn on how A-levels were graded in England, with some having already reached capacity for new students.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson back-tracked to allow results to be based on teachers' predictions, after criticism over the downgrading of roughly 40% of grades by exams regulator Ofqual using a controversial algorithm.

Students who were awarded higher grades by the algorithm will be allowed to keep them, but many will see their grades improve following the decision.

University admissions teams face dealing with huge swathes of students who have now made the cut - while also figuring out how social distancing can be maintained with a larger cohort.

Professor Debra Humphris, vice chancellor at the University of Brighton, told Sky News: "It's now a different level of chaos that we need to work out."

She said her university would "get on and do our very best", but warned "there will be constraints in the system, which this decision will now exacerbate".

The University of Oxford, which accepted more than 300 students who stood to miss their offers under the algorithm, revealed that it was now facing "significant capacity constraints".

Twitter user Girl Running Late, who works for a university, said the last minute U-turn would push "massively overstretched" staff "to their absolute limits".

There are also questions over whether students who thought they had missed out on their first-choice university and subsequently accepted an offer for a different course will be able to switch if they have now made the grade.

Mr Williamson has apologised for the "distress" caused to students, but has resisted calls to resign.

He told Sky News on Tuesday morning that students who have opted for their second choice could contact their first choice to see "if they can have a discussion with them".

Speaking on the Kay Burley@Breakfast programme, he said there were "expectations that universities will honour the commitment they've given" - but said he recognised "there are some real problems in the system".

Universities were previously limited on the number of students they could take each year, but the government has lifted the cap for the coming term to help those affected by the grading decisions.

Some have pointed out that several course types, including medicine, also have their own caps on numbers, meaning there will still be those who miss out on a place.

"The U turn has come too late for them," one Twitter user wrote.

Courses that use laboratories, arts studios and placements can logistically only take a certain number of students.

While universities are legally obliged to honour their offers, Ms Humphris has warned there are some which are "absolutely at capacity".

Bristol University confirmed in a tweet that some students may have to defer for a year if they have applied for courses which have an externally determined cap.

Others have expressed fears about how next year's university hopefuls will be affected.

Nicola Horrocks wrote on Twitter: "My daughter is due to take her A Levels in 2021. After missing nearly 6 months of college. What provisions are being made for these students?? And will there be enough University places available next year?"

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Dr Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group, said "urgent clarification" is needed from the government on what additional support will be provided to universities.

"There are limits to what can be done by the university sector alone to address that uncertainty without stretching resources to the point that it undermines the experience for all, not to mention ensuring students and staff are kept safe as we follow the steps needed to fight the COVID-19 pandemic," he said.

Mr Williamson told LBC News that a university sector task force will look at how capacity can be expanded, and highlighted there had been a "steep decline" in the number of students coming to UK universities from EU nations.

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