Reflections on a Mad Week in Higher Education

Readers from the UK can hardly fail to have noticed the confusion across the HE sector caused by last week’s A level ‘results’.  I recall how many people had been voicing fears during the past months that the disadvantaged would be further disadvantaged by the proposed process. It is clear that last month the House of Commons Education Select Committee recognized these anxieties, appreciating that bias and unfairness might result from the intended process for assigning grades, although their concerns appear to have had no effect on those in power. As the head of a Cambridge College, I know how worried the admissions team were about what the knock-on effects would be for our own applicants.

What follows are some personal reflections on the process (not necessarily views representative of the College as a whole; I had no part in any of the decisions made about individual students). The whole system, obviously most particularly for the students involved and their teachers and families, was placed in an incredibly difficult and unsatisfactory situation. Some righting of the wrongs the so-called algorithm imposed has now occurred after the Government did a U-turn: home students’ grades as determined by their schools and colleges (CAGs – Centre Assessed Grades) are now being used, not those that the algorithm spat out. However, reaching this decision so slowly – 5 days after the initial results were made public –  in itself caused huge stress and it now opens up a whole set of new problems that will work their way through the system over the coming weeks, months and indeed years and put huge stress on many thousands of individuals, be they students or university staff.

I feel a huge amount of sympathy for this year’s cohort, who have been so hammered by the process, whose confidence and hopes have been knocked back even if in many cases they are now reinstated, at least in part. For some a considerable period of uncertainty may remain; for others the damage to morale and trust may be lasting. It is hard to imagine there won’t be long-term effects of this tumultuous week for all of them, whatever their final position may be in terms of their aspirations. We are not out of the woods yet either. Many decisions are still to be made as the consequences of the revised results become apparent: on space in labs and lecture theatres; on accommodation; on people trading up; and, of course, universities left with uncertainty about their capacity and/or viability. Remember, all decisions about offers were made earlier in the year having plenty of time to factor in capacity considerations while operating under the many necessary constraints, and this careful thought has now been thrown out of the window by the last-minute changes. The constraints remain; the numbers may end up being wildly out of line with them.

In a college such as my own, admissions are always taken extremely seriously. We scrutinise many different factors in reaching decisions about whom to make offers to in the first place. Churchill has a proud tradition of admitting a high proportion of state school entrants, but we will only admit those who we believe are likely to thrive on their courses. We also feel that interviews have limited use as an indicator of future success. Historically we used AS results as a strong indicator when we decided on who to make offers to. All our analysis showed that there was good correlation between AS and later university exam results. Of course, we no longer have (in England) AS data to look to, which is why many subjects set their own assessments either prior to or at interview.

Although we are proud of the relatively high proportion of state school entrants we admit, the reality is that state versus private is a very crude metric, one which we – and, I believe, the University more widely – would prefer to move away from. We know there are students who attend private schools up to GCSE and who then move to state schools for A levels. We know there are scholarship students from disadvantaged backgrounds who attend private schools. We know state schools vary hugely in their intakes and their facilities. Some are grammar schools, some comprehensives and some are 6th form colleges and so on. Each school will have different strengths and weaknesses. The admissions team in my college know the schools intimately, as it were, and can factor in these different considerations along with every other piece of information we have to hand – submitted work, any subject-specific tests taken, teacher reports and predicted grades etc – when considering individuals before we decide whether (in January) to make an offer or not, along with the precise details of the offer we make.

However, we naturally make more offers than we expect to be fulfilled. This is true every year. In most subjects the so-called ‘cover ratio’ – the number of offers to places we wish to fill – is little greater than one. This is not true in mathematics where many more offers are made than there are places. Let me pause and consider maths in a little more detail, because it makes a huge difference to the picture of why we didn’t immediately accept all offer holders from the state sector (#honourtheoffer as it was termed). For the Cambridge maths course (unlike Oxford) there is an additional hurdle to entry: the STEP exam (Sixth Term Entrance Paper), which comes in several parts. This is because the Maths faculty do not believe A levels provide sufficient differentiation to identify the students who will thrive here. STEP exams have been in use for many years. This exam was sat this year by all maths offer holders via proctored online sessions. These results are safe, not determined by algorithm, and so we have always been confident that those offer-holders – state school or not – who failed to meet the required standard in STEP were treated fairly in not having their places confirmed.

For everyone else, there was a huge amount of individual scrutiny last week if their offer was not met under the government’s original algorithm. We certainly did not at any point follow this algorithm blindly. Any college whose position I am aware of has done the same thing: acted with great flexibility, thoughtfulness and care. Admissions teams will have talked to individuals and tried to help them understand the outcomes.

Another practical matter that is now going to be played out as we receive the CAG scores is limits on numbers and hence on accommodation. First of all, before the U-turn, we were mindful of the numbers cap that the government had imposed on universities – again this was in conflict with #honourtheoffer as we, collectively across the University, would have massively exceeded our cap by accepting all state school offer-holders. Along with the U-turn on grades (although not actually simultaneously, thereby leaving an hour or so of ‘what now?’ in admissions’ teams minds) the cap was removed. But we do have space limitations. In some cases, this applies to courses; in medicine, in particular, numbers are set by the government at national level across the sector and, as I write, discussions are underway on this figure but a cap (although possibly higher) seems likely to remain. In other cases it may be due to space limitation in teaching spaces across the university (laboratories are a particular concern even without factoring in social distancing due to the pandemic).

In this College, as opposed to these issues across the whole University, we promise every student accommodation on site for the duration of their course if they want it – not all colleges are able to do this, but we have invested in accommodation to make this possible ­ – and we are not going to renege on that promise. It matters to many students. That practicality obviously puts an upper limit on numbers, made trickier this particular year by PHE guidance on household sizes and how to cope with the pandemic for the next academic year. Again, because of the nature of our accommodation that has fortunately barely affected the numbers we can admit, although some colleges are facing more severe limitations on accommodation than we are.  Some students may need to be asked to defer; some may even prefer to do so given the uncertain position we are currently in.

We are also concerned, although we are now in a position where we have less ability to do anything about this, that there are conflicting commitments to different cohorts which we would wish to try to balance. With larger numbers being admitted this autumn than we would expect (although, again as I write, we don’t yet know exactly how many above our preferred target) the knock-on effect next year is a substantial concern for us.  As others have written in the press, next year’s UCAS applicants – whose education, we should recognize, has been severely impacted already due to the loss of a whole term of school attendance  – are not only directly impacted through the lack of recent teaching, but are now potentially up against those in the year above who may be guaranteed deferred places in universities across the country. This is a position none of us wanted to be in: intergenerational justice is definitely at risk.

I am deeply perturbed and angered by the stresses the A level students of 2020 have been put through, as well as the consequences for 2021. Any individual institution, such as my own, will have been doing the best they can under these circumstances, with an extended period of furiously hard work for all concerned. For Churchill College we could see that our careful scrutiny of all the information we had under the original set of results meant that we would have had a cohort starting this October which is academically strong, but also very diverse. Moving away from the crude state/private sector divide, there are other measures of disadvantage which we can see we are ‘scoring’ (as it were) well against. One of these is the so-called POLAR4 quintiles, which is a measure of postcode disadvantage. POLAR quintiles 1 and 2 represent those areas (40% of the total demographic sit between these two quintiles) which have the lowest number of university attendees; admissions from these quintiles are particularly high this year. There are other so-called ‘flags’ of multiple deprivation which we care greatly about; admitting students with two or more of these flags is another way of ensuring we are not simply reinforcing prior advantage. Churchill will continue to work hard on all these fronts whatever crises are thrown in our direction. More statistics about the initial cohort that we were expecting to admit can be seen on our web pages, but there is absolutely no doubt we had a group which demonstrated, once again, our commitment to widening participation. We cannot yet know what the composition of the final class of 2020 will look like.

Whenever the dust settles, I hope many will look at the whole process to work out how such a fiasco can never be allowed to happen again. Many universities will have been, and will continue to be, under enormous strain. This is, let us not forget, on top of a pandemic, when the delivery of teaching has already had to be completely rethought, and we can expect more changes as the conditions change. All staff have had to make huge conceptual leaps – for instance how does an establishment such as mine cope with quarantine, feeding students safely and with social distance, preserve sufficient community to ensure students’ mental health is protected and comply with the public health guidelines as they evolve. Underlying many institutions will be concerns about financial health and long-term viability. To have such a bungled exam results’ season on top of these other massive concerns will have felt like the last straw to many, but the camel’s back must not be broken!




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2 Responses to Reflections on a Mad Week in Higher Education

  1. Huw says:

    Thank you for a fascinating article. It’s really helpful to understand the constraints you face and the lengths to which you are going to accommodate offer holders. The Churchill College admissions team have been superb at keeping in touch and the speed with which they responded when the U-turn was known is appreciated.

    There’s still some way to go to finalise outcomes but at least hope has turned (for some) to confidence in securing a place at Cambridge at some point.

  2. I did wonder if Churchill was better placed than most in having the Moeller Centre, back in 1995/6 because of some planning conditions (Rumour?) it housed some undergrads amd has a lot of grounds vs constrained town centre sites. Impressed the gender imbalance has been sorted though. In the commercial sector pick up lunchboxes / takeaways and lots of picnic benches seem to work… no single solution just lots of little mitigation’s that add up but gosh a huge challenge 😳 remote labs are possible as per Georgia Tech or spare commercial lab space in Cambridge 🤔

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