Universities need to end their silence

Statement from the Council for the Defence of British Universities on A-level results.

English universities have been remarkably silent about the fiasco over Ofqual’s determination of A-level grades. Universities UK issued an extraordinarily misjudged statement on Thursday, stating that: “Students receiving their results today can be incredibly proud of their work and achievements in circumstances no-one could have imagined.”  

It went on to say, “To those who may not have got quite the grades they hoped, our message is please do not panic. University teams are ready and waiting to support you and talk through the many opportunities still available for you in the days and weeks ahead.” Since Thursday, they have issued no further statement. 

The algorithm used by Ofqual has not produced ‘near misses’, but many students who have been downgraded substantially. However, universities do not need to wait for an appeal process. The solution is in their own hands. For most courses – with some exceptions, where demand was very high, such as medicine and Oxbridge – universities can offer places to all the students who confirmed them as first choice, on the basis of the predicted grades on which the offers were made. The 5% extra students that can be taken on provides room to do so. However, Government could also relax this cap and provide compensating support for those universities that find their student numbers seriously reduced as a consequence. 

Universities UK also celebrated “record numbers of applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds”. Given that it is those applicants who have been most affected by Ofqual’s algorithm, special measures are needed to ensure that they secure the places they deserve. 

The appeals process can continue, but students would be relieved of current anxieties and can get on with their future plans. Many universities have set early September as the date that they need the appeals process to be completed and outcomes known for students to be admitted in the coming academic year. This is beyond the capacity of Ofqual to achieve now that they have revoked the criteria they issued on Saturday. Universities also need to provide a clear signal to Ofqual about what the appeals criteria should be and the date by which the process needs to be completed. 

The puzzle is that universities had had the grades from the Friday before they were announced on Thursday, yet did not seem aware of the problems. Or worse, did not trouble to ask serious questions. Instead, they planned their clearing strategies. So why haven’t universities acted quickly, decisively and collectively? Is it because they don’t want to risk a reduction in their ‘tariff’ score and their ranking for future years?  

The current failure does not only lie with Ofqual, but with a timid and divided university system that has forgotten its values. Our universities are charities, not for-profit corporations, with a duty to students and the public.