A-levels: Thousands could miss out on university places with post-lockdown shake-up

·3 min read
Thousands of students to “miss out” on university places they would have got last year, Professor Alan Smithers says  (PA Wire)
Thousands of students to “miss out” on university places they would have got last year, Professor Alan Smithers says (PA Wire)

An “explosion” of top grades that were awarded to students during the pandemic is to be halved this year, according to an academic.

It means thousands of students could miss out on their top university choice, a new report by Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham, said.

“The Government has announced that the increase of 160,000 top grades during the two years of teacher assessment is to be halved this year,” Mr Smithers said.

“This is a necessary first step in restoring the value of the grades, but with 80,000 fewer top grades, thousands of students will miss out on the places they would have got last year.”

He added: “The hard work for these students did not end with the exams, but begins again on results-day in the chase for a university place.”

The changes come after a Covid-driven “experiment” in which the grades were decided by teachers as education moved from the classroom to the home during lockdown.

“The 2020 exams had to be cancelled, but Ofqual was confident that the grades could be accurately calculated by fitting teachers’ rankings into the grade pattern of the previous decade. It all seemed plausible and feasible, but in the event proved to be disastrous.

Professor Alan Smithers, the University of Buckingham
Professor Alan Smithers, the University of Buckingham

“There was an explosion in top grades, a major swing to girls, and big increases in top grades in the performing arts and practical subjects,” he said.

“In 2022, there has actually been a return to exams, but with some of the inflation of the Covid years retained.”

He said the inflated grades of 2020 and 2021 have “greatly increased the demand for university places” and competition will be further increased by a spike in the number of 18-year-olds.

“The likelihood is that competition for the sought-after places will intensify. Meaningful A-level grades become even more important to ensure that places are allocated fairly.”

But a Department for Education spokesman told the Standard it is “not right” to suggest these factors have “caused a squeeze on places”.

“Last year did not see a high number of deferrals compared to previous years and UK students take up the vast majority of places on university undergraduate courses compared to international students, so it is not right to suggest that these factors have caused a squeeze on places.

“Competition for places at the most selective universities has always been high and this year is no different – but there will always be lots of options for students either at another university, through clearing or high-quality vocational options that are just as prestigious and rewarding as academic routes.”

A spokesman for exams regulator Ofqual told Sky News there is “no link between grades and the supply of places”.

He said: “While there may be fewer top grades this year compared to 2021, when a different method of assessment (teacher-assessed grades) was used, universities understand what grades will look like overall this year and have made offers accordingly.”