Top UK universities have said they stand ready to expand their numbers again this year to make sure applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds do not miss out after exams were cancelled for the second year in a row.
The 24 universities in the elite Russell Group have written a letter, shared with i, seeking to reassure students that they will not be penalised by the decision to scrap exams.
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The letter from group chief executive, Dr Tim Bradshaw, said: “We know that many students in their final years of schooling will be worried about the impact of measures to stop the spread of Covid-19 on their education and future opportunities, including school closures and the cancelling of exams.”
It goes on: “We want to reassure students across all four nations of the UK that whatever the assessment system in 2021, Russell Group universities will be as fair and flexible as possible to ensure they are not disadvantaged in their applications.
“Last summer we saw a significant increase in the number of students taking up a place at higher-tariff universities, such as those in the Russell Group. This included those from the most underrepresented areas and groups and reflects our members’ determination to ensure applicants were not unfairly affected by the challenging circumstances around those assessments. Our universities will take forward a similar approach this year.”
The letter says that Russell Group universities are also “mindful of the additional academic and welfare support” that students may need in 2021. It promises access to services such as “counselling, welfare advice and specialist study skills” for those who need them.
Separately, the University of Cambridge announced that students from disadvantaged backgrounds who failed to meet its high entry requirements would be given a chance to study at the institution.
The university is to launch a free foundation year for up to 50 talented students who miss out on the top grades at A-level.
Last year ‘higher-tariff’ universities – those which normally demand the highest grades – took on significantly more students than usual.
According to figures from the university admissions service Ucas, the number of students going to these institutions rose from 152,990 in 2019 to 171,470 – an increase of 12 per cent.
Top universities enrolled more students because the Government’s decision to use more generous teacher-assessed grades meant many more young people met their offers. Some Oxford colleges decided to accept all UK offer holders because they felt it would be unfair to turn away students who had not been able to sit exams.
All four nations of the UK have opted to scrap exams and replace them with teacher-assessment. In England, the assessment watchdog Ofqual is due to launch a consultation this week on how the system will work.
One senior figure in the exam industry backed the Russell Group’s stance. The source, who asked not to be named, told i that if universities ran “normal” admissions procedures “there will be a fair number of people who won’t be on the right track”.
“We know that there are some kids who will be systematically over-graded, and there will be a significant proportion who are under-graded because of a dysfunctional relationship with their teachers,” they said.
The source confirmed that exam boards were looking at whether they could produce tests for teachers to use. “We’ve got stacks and stacks of very high quality questions which do link to specifications. They could be assembled into tests by teachers, we’re exploring that at the moment.”