Universities demand more money after A-level U-turn

19 August 2020, 06:40

Embattled Education Secretary Gavin Williamson is facing calls to resign
Embattled Education Secretary Gavin Williamson is facing calls to resign. Picture: PA
EJ Ward

By EJ Ward

The Government will need to provide universities "significant financial support" due to the impact of the recent U-turn on A-level grades.

It comes after the Government reversed a previous policy and told students on Monday that they could receive grades based on teachers' estimates following anger over the downgrading of thousands of A-level results.

Vice-chancellors met the higher education minister Michelle Donelan for talks on Tuesday night as they attempted to thrash out a deal to secure thousands of school leavers their first choice university places.

Universities asked the Government for financial support so they can "scale up" places this year and next, a source told The Telegraph.

Universities are now facing a call to expand the number of students they take on for the upcoming term, but also have to deal with the impact of social distancing regulations.

The about-turn by Education Secretary Gavin Williamson will mean A-level students will be able to use their teachers' predicted grades rather than those calculated by an algorithm.

There have been concerns the shift will lead to rampant grade inflation, with the proportion of results marked A* or A reaching 38 per cent, up from 26 per cent last year.

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Mr Williamson remains under intense pressure despite apologising to pupils - and has repeatedly refused to say whether he will consider resigning.

In a letter to Mr Williamson from Universities UK, vice-chancellors warned of the financial difficulties some institutions face following the U-turn, and said they needed "significant financial support from Government to stabilise their finances".

Sent on Monday, the organisation warned: "The move to using centre-assessed grades will rightly address the inequalities suffered by many students from disadvantaged backgrounds by use of the original algorithm.

"However, it will also result in significant overall grade inflation leading to significant decreases in planned enrolments at a number of institutions as students opt for higher tariff courses.

"Such institutions whose financial plans were based on the agreed temporary student number controls will now require additional government financial support."

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The University and College Union (UCU) and National Union of Students (NUS) have also signed a joint letter to Mr Williamson, warning the lifting of the student cap - which had aimed to prevent institutions from over-recruiting to make up for lost revenue as a result of Covid-19 - would "remove one of the only interventions that the government has made to help mitigate the financial impact of the Covid crisis on universities".

The letter said: "While it is still unclear exactly what the distribution of domestic students across higher education will be, it is widely anticipated that institutions will move as much as possible to honour their offers.

"This will likely lead to expanded recruitment at high-tariff institutions at the expense of lower-tariff universities, shifting the financial pain from the Covid crisis onto many of the institutions that play a vital role in widening participation and social mobility."

The letter added scrapping the cap did not "address the practical barriers that prevent many institutions from recruiting higher numbers than they originally intended in order to honour their conditional offers - including staffing and physical capacity".

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Leading universities have warned students who now have higher grades amid the policy change could still be asked to defer their place if there is no space left on their preferred course.

In some courses, such as medicine and dentistry, institutions may not be able to admit students this year.

The first meeting of a new taskforce set with tackling issues faced by universities following the Government's exams U-turn took place on Tuesday.

In a statement, education minister Michelle Donelan said: "We are working closely with the higher education sector to understand the challenges facing universities and provide as much support as we can.

"I led the first meeting of our new taskforce and I will hold meetings every day with the sector to resolve these issues.

"We are supporting universities, including by announcing our intention to remove temporary student number controls and working with them to help them prioritise students and uphold their first choice either this coming year, or as a last resort the following year.

"We announced a package of support for the sector during the pandemic, including bringing forward tuition fee and research funding, and a scheme to assess any restructuring support higher education providers may need."

However, Labour's shadow education minister Emma Hardy criticised the decision not to invite the representatives of staff or students to the meeting.

In a tweet, she said: "How can a task force solve the crisis facing universities without also speaking to student and staff representatives?"

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Meanwhile, the headteachers' union has called for an urgent independent review of the exams grading fiasco is needed.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), has written to the Education Secretary demanding a review to rebuild trust because "public confidence has been badly shaken".

He said: "It seems to be clear that the statistical model for moderating centre-assessed grades was flawed and that it produced many anomalous results.

"But how did this happen, why were the problems not foreseen, and why were ministers not on top of this? Most importantly, what lessons can we learn for the future?"

It comes as GCSE students have been told they will receive their results on Thursday despite the Government's U-turn on grading.

All schools and colleges will receive pupils' GCSE grades from exam boards ahead of results day, the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) said.

Exam boards said they have been "working hard" to provide centre assessment grades, based on teachers' estimates, or moderated grades if they are higher.