Urgent questions on post-COVID university admissions

Grades in school exams are the currency that United Kingdom universities use to decide which applicants succeed. But grades at A level (and Scottish Higher and Advanced Higher, International Baccalaureate, etc) are not just the major factor in determining university admissions. Grades are also used to fix the pecking order between different subjects and universities.

Officially, of course, grades are only one factor that universities take into account. Interviews and aptitude tests in subjects like medicine are also used. That is also the position legally. High grades do not automatically entitle applicants to admission. It is at the discretion of universities, unlike the position in much of the rest of Europe where all those passing the Bac or the Abitur are entitled to places (but only, of course, in the first year). Many US state universities are in a similar position.

In practice, university admissions are almost entirely decided by school exam grades. In a mass university system, that is perhaps inevitable. There is simply not time to interview all applicants, outside subjects in which the nature of the discipline makes it essential.

In the present admissions system, where offers are made on predicted grades, it is not always worth it anyway. Sixth-formers make multiple applications to several universities so many are ‘wasted’. Interviews are now just as likely to be used for marketing purposes, ‘selling’ the course or university, as for selection.

But that is not the end of the story of the influence of school exam grades. They are also used to grade institutions in rankings and global league tables. The more selective the course or the institution, the higher it is ranked, as if rejecting lots of applicants were a badge of honour.

Even in official reports and statistics, a distinction is now often made between ‘high-tariff’ and ‘low-tariff’ institutions, a fairly transparent attempt to reinvent the old binary distinction between universities and polytechnics, but apparently on more objective criteria (good old metrics…).

Enter COVID-19

That is how admissions, and rankings, work now. Or perhaps I should say ‘then’ because the COVID-19 pandemic, and the public health restrictions it has made essential, are playing havoc with school exams.

Last summer, A levels were replaced in England by teacher-assessed grades, after a failed attempt to ‘moderate’ them downwards by the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual). The Scottish Qualifications Authority attempted to do the same in Scotland with Highers and Advanced Highers.

These teacher-assessed grades were significantly higher than the grades achieved in written exams in previous years. More than 165,700 UCAS applicants had their results increased by at least one grade. As a result, more applicants met the offers they had been made by universities – 84.5% compared with 80.8% in 2019.

The number of first-year places in universities had to be increased in step with the expansion in the number of qualified applicants.

In Scotland, where (Scottish-domiciled) students do not pay fees and their overall number is capped, the government had to fund the extra places.

In England, where students are charged high fees and overall numbers are not capped, the additional cost is less easily quantified. But it will be considerable. Student loans to pay fees are paid upfront by the state.

Also, the ‘Resource Accounting and Budgeting’ charge, the proportion of loans that have to be written off and therefore count as public spending, already nudging 50%, is likely to increase still further in a subdued pandemic and post-pandemic labour market.

But a more immediate concern is whether this inflation, certainly revaluation, of grades will undermine their usefulness as the currency that determines university admissions and also the position of courses and universities in the pecking order.

Should teacher-assessed grades be given the same weight as the ‘gold standard’ of written exams, tarnished anyway by the evidence that in practice their accuracy is limited (plus or minus a grade, often a decisive difference in university admissions)?

Maybe teacher-assessed grades are actually better guides to academic potential? But, if we trust teacher-assessed grades, why don’t we ask teachers, who after all know their students best, to provide more holistic assessments rather than simply headline grades?

What happens in summer 2021?

These questions are not going to go away. This coming summer there will be a reprise. In Scotland, Highers and Advanced Highers have already been cancelled. This week the government announced that it is seeking alternatives to A levels. It previously said they would take place in a modified form that was not clearly specified, but would certainly have been stigmatised as dumbing down in the past.

As with COVID-19 restrictions, there have been different approaches to the exams issue across the increasingly dis-United Kingdom which are leading to new levels of complexity and uncertainty, and potentially unfairness in university admissions.

Moreover, UK universities, like most others, have not yet begun seriously to factor in the disruption to schools, and so to exams and grades, outside the UK, despite the importance of recruiting international students.

Whatever the differences across the UK, there will soon be two cohorts of university applicants who either have not sat written exams, or sat exams that are not comparable with previous years.

Add in the differential pattern of schooling disrupted by COVID-19, more severe in areas of high infection (and greater social deprivation), and the picture becomes even more confused. Not only will the currency of, generally now non-exam, grades have been destabilised, but the grades themselves will be based on divergent school experiences that reflect, and magnify, social inequality.

Widening inequality

The impact on potential students from more socially deprived backgrounds has become an urgent issue. The research evidence is not clear. Among students of similar ability, grades of those from state schools tend to be under-predicted by teachers while those from private schools tend to be over-predicted.

Some recent research on predicted A level grades also suggests that disadvantaged students are significantly more likely to receive pessimistic grade predictions. This feeds through into choice of university and helps to explain why there is a concentration of privately educated and socially advantaged students in so-called ‘top universities’, notably Oxford and Cambridge.

Research from Ofqual last summer found “no evidence” that either the calculated grades (ie those which Ofqual ‘moderated’, unsuccessfully as it turned out) or final grades (the teacher-assessed grades) awarded this year were systematically biased against candidates with protected characteristics (such as gender and ethnic background or social disadvantage).

But the Ofqual research was based on crunching the data. It didn’t, and couldn’t, look at the wider hinterland of the differential impact of school closures, the digital divide at a time when a lot of learning has necessarily been online, the curtailment of university outreach activities in-person and substitution of less effective online alternatives and other factors.

I have tried to look at some of these issues in a recent report for the Scottish Government. My conclusion is that, in university admissions (as in everything else) COVID-19 has deepened inequalities. To adapt St Matthew’s Gospel, “from those who have least, the most has been taken away”.

Questions for universities

For universities there are a host of consequential questions.

Should the inflationary consequences of these more generous grades, and the consequent increase in university places (and public expenditure), just be accepted; or should they be reined back, perhaps gradually and discreetly? Would either be fair to earlier and, if grades are reined back, future generations of students? Should the positional advantage just be seen as a bonus for the uniquely disadvantaged COVID-19 generation?

How do these grades impact on contextual admissions, the practice of making lower offers to encourage more successful applications from disadvantaged backgrounds or under-performing schools? Do we just treat the new teacher-assessed grades as a continuing ‘gold standard’ from which the same careful adjustments can be made?

Do we accept the distortion in the shape and balance of the higher education system, with more students enrolled in ‘high-tariff’ institutions, in effect traditional universities, because more have higher grades, at the expense of ‘low-tariff’ institutions, universities more open to and experienced in meeting the needs of a wider and more diverse population?

There are lots of questions – but, so far, not many answers, or even perhaps recognition that these are important questions to which we urgently need answers.

Peter Scott is commissioner for fair access in Scotland and professor of higher education studies at the UCL Institute of Education, United Kingdom.