Opinion | Does grade inflation change the way students should be offered university places?


By Gemma Blundell-Doyle, Third Year, English

The disruption caused to the United Kingdom’s exam system by the COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced barriers that prevent higher education becoming  more accessible to those from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Revisions to the university admission process should be made to reflect this.

In January 2021, Ofqual announced that the summer exam series would not go ahead. Instead, final grades – the culmination of years of education - would be Teacher Assessed Grades (TAGs). This was a change from the Centre Assessed Grades (CAGs) used in 2020.

This method still lacks the impartiality and fairness of assessment by a rigorous course of examinations, which has been the staple of the British education system for decades, as they cannot be as stringently regulated.

Students’ chances of progressing to a highly ranked university are influenced by the type of school they attended.

This resulted in grade inflation. Top grades for A-level results for England, Wales and Northern Ireland reached a record high this year with 44.8% getting A* or A grades.

The sharp rise in top grades at A-level means that the proportion of students getting top A* and A grades has risen by almost 75% since the last time conventional exams were taken in 2019.

As a result, many universities reached full capacity immediately. Bristol University had no places available in clearing this year. An avenue which is taken by many students who go on to achieve well in higher education, if they were not made an offer initially.

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Looking at the grades awarded in finer detail reveals a disparity in the grades distributed in different types of school and subjects.

As reported in the Guardian, figures published by the Joint Council for Qualifications showed there was a more than 20 per cent point gap in the proportion of top grades between independent schools and state schools in 2019, the last year when formal exams were taken.

This year the gap widened to 31 per cent between independent schools and comprehensives in England, while the gap between independent and state sixth form colleges was even wider, at 35 per cent.

These statistics suggest that, when examinations are assessed within schools, wealthier students seem to be given more favourable treatment by their teachers.

Therefore, students’ chances of progressing to a highly ranked university are influenced by the type of school they attended. This has been widely reported on; and brings into question the future of the UK’s admission process to higher education.

Although the UK universities admission process has acknowledged this issue before the pandemic and includes measures such as contextualised offers to dismantle socio-economic barriers.

The COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced barriers that prevent higher education becoming  more accessible to those from lower socio-economic backgrounds

These numbers, revealed by this year’s grade inflation, highlight another problem with the admission system – the practise of universities making offers on the basis of predicted rather than achieved grades.

If richer students were arbitrarily awarded higher marks by their teachers this year, it is possible that they are also given higher predicted grades than their state school counterparts, for no good reason.

The process of deciding predicted grades also varies between schools and lacks transparency. Different schools have different methods of deciding predicted grades.

For example, some follow a strict process of setting end of year exams at the end of lower sixth, and predicting one grade higher, whereas other schools allow more leeway in the process.

Around the world alternative methods are used in the university admission processes. In Ireland, offers are not made based on predicted grades. Instead, points are attributed based on a student’s percentage score in each exam across a range of subjects.

These points are added up and students are ranked accordingly. A higher number of points is needed to get onto the most in demand courses such as medicine.

In a challenging economic climate, less financially secure students may feel more pressure

This process ensures students are awarded for their actual academic performance rather than a predicted performance which is not always achieved. Also, it means that there is no room for independent and private schools to unjustly inflate their students’ predicted grades, to the detriment of state school students.

It would also prevent the current problem of universities having to accept more students than they can accommodate, as many have done this year. Universities make more offers than they can accept in the belief that some students will miss their offer on results day.

The natural reduction in numbers between offer-holders and students who are inducted to university did not occur in the extreme circumstances of the pandemic, meaning universities had to accept more offer holders than in normal times. Courses which require specialised resources and labs to be taught have been especially caught in this conundrum.

The Medical Schools Council, representing medical schools across the UK, has launched a "brokerage programme" that will match applicants to available spaces as a response. Students who move to less subscribed medical schools will receive a compensatory £10,000 payment. In a challenging economic climate, less financially secure students may feel pressure to take this offer.

As well as preventing candidates being bought out of their first-choice university places, changing the UK admissions process would remove the bias associated with the practice of predicting grades (which can also be seen in the way CAGs and TAGs have been awarded).

In regard to the near future, it has been speculated that state wide exams will return. However, students will be made aware of the topics appearing on the paper and formula sheets will be made available.

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This is the fairest option for the school leavers of 2022 as it prevents them from being unfairly disadvantaged by gaps in their knowledge that have resulted from their disrupted education, whilst ensuring the grades awarded maintain their integrity in the eyes of future employers and the public.

Featured Image: Unsplash / Mario Klassen

What are your thoughts on the A-Level grade inflation fiasco? Let us know!