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HEPI response to today’s exam results: Nine points to note from Nick Hillman

  • 18 August 2022
  • By Nick Hillman
  1. Congratulations to all those getting their results today – I used to spend every results day at the UCAS headquarters in Cheltenham with the Minister for Universities, where there was always a media scramble. When asked how the Government should respond to the kerfuffle, my advice was always: start by congratulating the hundreds of thousands of people receiving their results. This was partly to change the official results day narrative, which for much of the 2010s (as in the past two years too), had focused on grade inflation rather than the achievements of people after years of study at school and college. But having been a teacher earlier in my career, it was also because I understood that not everyone is searching for 3A*s; they want a fair assessment of their talents and hard work which can act as a passport to the next stage of their lives. And congratulations are especially in order in 2022 because this cohort of young people have had an especially torrid time in the past three years.
  2. Most people will have the grades they need for the next step – In every year, including this one, most candidates get the grades they need to do what they want. For example, the Scottish results, which came out a couple of weeks ago, included more grade deflation than expected but UCAS were still able to say ‘A record proportion of Scottish students are celebrating gaining their place at their first choice university.’ For those who have not got the place they wanted – and, this morning, it currently seems about one-third of those who applied through UCAS have not secured their first choice place this year – there are lots of options and advice available, though time is not always on their side as some alternatives could fill up quickly.
  3. Some of the pain has already happened – In the past few days, we have seen huge speculation about 2022 being an extra challenging year in terms of university entry. On the other hand, the language from vice-chancellors and UCAS has been much more sober. If it seems hard to reconcile these two things, remember, first, that applicants have already absorbed much of the pain of a tougher application round long before results day, when the offers went out a few months ago. Secondly, remember that the media are mainly focused on the most selective institutions and courses (Oxbridge, Russell Group and Medicine), which are always hard to secure – they may be even harder to secure this year than in the recent past but there should, broadly speaking, still be enough places in the system as a whole to go around (unlike in the days of student number caps, which no longer exist in England but can still affect some students elsewhere in the UK).
  4. If you think this year is bad, the future might be worse – There are more UK young people leaving school or college this year than last, thanks to past birth rates, but that rise keeps on going to 2030. The bulge has largely worked its way through primary schools already and is now hitting secondary schools. It scares me when I hear policymakers threaten the return of tough student number caps in the face of the underlying demographics (and, selfishly, in part because my younger child will, if she chooses to apply to higher education on leaving school, be doing so for entry in 2030, at the top of the peak). In terms of this year, it means that people who do not get the results they want today and who choose to take a year out to reapply may not find next year any less competitive. Moreover, those who enter higher education in 2023 rather than 2022 will have to repay their loan back over 40 years, rather than the current 30 years, before it is written off by taxpayers. So the usual advice of ‘take a gap year to reassess’ should be regarded in a different light this time around.
  5. International students are not (generally) snaffling the places of home students – It is possible that this is true for the most selective places. For example, an Oxbridge college that does not want to expand its undergraduate entry because it fears it would water down the intimate collegiate environment (or leave too little space for postgraduates) will administer admissions as if it is a zero-sum game and every extra international student could mean one fewer home student. (One reason why independent schools are beginning to shout more loudly about university admissions again is that uber-selective universities are being told to recruit more disadvantaged students and are financially incentivised to recruit more international students, whose fees are not capped at £9,250 at a time of high inflation, leaving UK students from local independent schools more squeezed than in the past.) However, Oxbridge is rarely a good place to start in higher education policy conversations and, overall, international students do the opposite of what many people believe: in other words, they make courses viable that might otherwise not be viable – and also improve the learning experience for home students by ensuring more diverse learning groups. At our webinar with UCAS earlier this week, their CEO Clare Marchant confirmed that – at a macro level – the data do not suggest international students are displacing home students (at least not yet).
  6. One new feature this year is applicants holding T-Levels – In 2022, there are a few hundred people applying to higher education with results for this new qualification. The Government have been clear that T-Levels should be a mainstream route to higher education and, indeed, are ‘defunding’ other courses to help try and ensure T-Levels take off. One challenge for universities is that we will not know for a few years whether T-Level applicants thrive in higher education or not. Clearly, if they do then it is reasonable for Ministers to expect higher education institutions to give places to those brandishing T-Level qualifications. But if they fare worse than other students, there will need to be a conversation about whether they need different sorts of support either before or after entering higher education.
  7. Where are the boys? – A-Level results day is famous for pictures of photogenic young women jumping for joy and, as Chris Cook of the Financial Times rightly pointed out back in 2011, such coverage has not always reflected well on the media or some schools. However, those pictures do remind us of one important thing – the gap between men and women in entry to higher education. Women hit Tony Blair’s 50 per cent higher education participation target ages ago; boys are still a long way off it. Last year, Mary Curnock Cook, the former CEO of UCAS (and a HEPI Trustee) even raised fears of ‘systemic bias against boys.’
  8. The future of exams and grading – As we have flagged on the HEPI website already this week, our selective university entry round is based on an assumption which cannot bear the full weight put upon it. We still generally assume that A-Level grades are an accurate reflection of someone’s achievements to date. Aside from the fact that the past couple of years have highlighted a big difference between teachers’ assessments of their own pupils and the actual grades achieved in a normal year, markers are human and different markers very often give different marks and very often those marks would put someone on different sides of a grade boundary. Our exams system is based on the idea that results need only to be accurate by +/- one grade, so someone who receives a B might also have received an A or a C; yet our university entry system assumes there is a huge difference between an A and a C. On the HEPI website yesterday, Professor Rob Cuthbert concluded: ‘If Ofqual remains resistant to change, then universities need to act instead, by changing how they select students. For many universities, offers linked to grades have been a convenient way to control access, which seemed fair. Now we know it isn’t, admissions officers need to rethink their approach.’ (Some think post-qualification admissions would be better but, in fact, that would be likely to put more weight on flawed exams and less on other information.)
  9. Don’t forget about student accommodation – If you are getting your results today and have a higher education place you are happy to accept, remember to act swiftly to find some appropriate accommodation. Some UK cities have plenty of student beds while others can have a shortage and this can determine the rent levels, the range of choice and how far from campus you will live. So after you’ve celebrated, start thinking about what rent you can afford, whether you want a place that is en suite or not, self-catered or not, somewhere with bigger bedrooms or bigger social areas? The right answer will be different for different people, but remember that social spaces are important (so that you can easily meet others) and so is trying if possible to ensure you have sufficient income left over after paying your rent to allow a varied student experience and a half-decent social life.

3 comments

  1. John Claughton says:

    For most of this century A levels have been the headline news in mid-August with immediate government comment. It’s more about politics than education and in this century there have been 15 Education Secretaries. And yet the real issue is the design and value of A levels which force early choices, limit options, contribute to gender imbalance in subjects and are rightly challenged by the Times Education Commission, the President of the Royal Society – and now even Barnaby Lenon, Chair of ISC.

  2. Paul Woodgates says:

    Excellent set of points!

    Sure we can all echo point 1 – congratulations to those who have worked hard to get their results!

    The most important issue here for policymakers in surely point 8 – it really is now clear that the A-level system is not fit for purpose in determining fair admissions for university (and arguably not fit for purpose for much else either). That ideally needs to be addressed at a system-wide level but Rob Cuthbert makes a powerful argument that, in the absence of government or regulator action, universities should act. What is less clear at present is what universities might do instead of the reliance on exam results and how they could act together to make any change happen.

  3. albert wright says:

    I would like to add an additional item to Nick’s top ten, namely:

    11 What should be taught where in HE?

    With increasing pressure on the limited number of undergraduate places at existing Universities, the lack of affordable student accommodation in many cities and the knock on increase in property prices should we be looking at the courses being taught at Universities?

    An increasing number of courses are predominately skills related rather than “academic”, would it be more sensible to deliver these in local HE colleges or sub contract them to the private sector?

    I am thinking mainly of subjects related to medicine and the new graduate courses for the police.

    Such a move would free up tens of thousands of places currently given to University undergraduates on these courses in many of our overcrowded cities.

    The change of location should bring down costs and would help with leveling up.

    Perhaps what we need is a new brand of Higher Education Institutions that sits between General FE Colleges and Universities that delivered suitable courses for those students looking for employment and career prospects in the public sector.

    It might be named Public Sector Academies.

    In addition to nurses and policemen this would include teachers, social workers, Court administrators and public sector jobs requiring skills at level 4, 5, 6 and even 7.

    These new institutions could also offer degree apprenticeships and provide courses at these levels for lawyers and accountants (where level 5 and 6 apprenticeships already exist).

    There could be a National Curriculum for such courses monitored by a National Public Sector Academy Quality Agency.

    Once created, the students at such institutions could number 1 million within 5 to 7 years and release at least 500,000 “spaces” at existing Universities to cater for the increased number of 18 year olds arising from demographic changes.

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