Designing certainty into a crisis

Certainty is in short supply amidst the Covid19 pandemic. These last few weeks have seen all of us chilled by a landscape which seems to be receding into unfamiliarity. And yet, in my neighbourhood, the number 11 bus still rumbles past, BT Openreach are digging trenches up the road and I hear small children squealing as they leave the school gates – until tomorrow.

Because yesterday, Gavin Williamson announced that schools and universities will close and GCSE and A Level exams will not take place in May and June this year. Some, like Anthony Seldon, VC of the University of Buckingham, feel this last measure is unnecessary. It certainly poses difficulties for ensuring students get the grades they have earned. You wonder how we got to the point whereby grades for two years’ work depend so heavily on one set of exams. “Michael Gove’s decision to scrap all course work, make GCSEs and A levels exam only and effectively scrap AS Levels clearly wasn’t fully stress tested” tweeted Rosemary Bennett, Education Editor for The Times. (March 19th 2020)

Deborah Cameron (@wordspinster) also via Twitter (March 19th 2020) laid out some of the drawbacks if we were to attempt to instate new and untried arrangements for taking exams remotely, online. Among them are inequalities in access to broadband and laptops, ensuring the integrity of exam conditions, and also the difficulties of deciding what compensations to make. At least cancelling exams provides some degree of certainty so that students don’t have to try and cope with these stressful events as well as a global pandemic. On balance, if I was an A level student, I might prefer being spared taking exams at the moment, while others sort out the logistics of university access on the basis of a combination of mock results, teacher predictions and external moderation.

But the proposal from Alistair Jarvis, Chief Executive of Universities UK, on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme took me by surprise. Jarvis indicated that students who were holding an offer from a university might simply be accepted by that university now. Universities, he said, should honour the offers they have already made on the basis of prior attainment, predicted grades, references, UCAS personal statements etc. The presenter, Nick Robinson, asked whether these should now be considered unconditional offers, and Jarvis indicated that, yes, universities needed to be flexible in order to remove uncertainty.    https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m000gbhc (1.55- 1.57)

I wondered how this would work when universities make many more offers to applicants than they have places, in line with a conversion formula. If Jarvis had now implied an entitlement for students to all progress to their first choice university, this was obviously going to cause considerable destabilization for the whole sector.

Rosemary Bennett of The Times seemed similarly startled:

What ? Alastair Jarvis UUK says universities shd honour all offers they have made …..so Cambridge , Oxford and all the rest who makes more offers than places (knowing not all will get top A levels) will be rammed and other struggling to fill courses. (Tweet 19/03/20)

In response, Jarvis tried to walk it back on Twitter:

No, didn’t say universities should do that. An option being considered is looking at how offers could be honoured – won’t be able to be everyone’s 1st choice. Would need system to allocate places. Very tricky, but unprecedented times. I would prefer A-level grades to be awarded

But rather than sidestep the chaos, and land it on individual universities, I propose some ideas which might be workable, just for this year.

Where possible and where their chosen course was offered, students could be allocated to a local HEI. If they wished to transfer elsewhere in 12 months, they might be able to do so based on first year performance. Given the amount of disruption students have faced, and the lack of clarity as to whether teaching can start in the autumn, the new academic year would need to start in January 2021. If repeated, it would give us the opportunity to put in place post-qualification applications (PQA) – something we should have done two decades ago. Students who have been out of school for some months would understandably not wish to mark time through the autumn until January. But the nation may need willing and able hands and minds by September. We could pay a living wage to 18-year olds and offer them work experience in a national citizen’s volunteer force. There will be elderly people to care for; younger children who have missed school to tutor; sports to coach; new community projects to support. And a grateful nation would waive tuition fees for that disrupted, delayed first year of higher education.

Would it work? It might provide an acceptable stopgap solution to the problem of how to allocate university places fairly. No student need miss out on a university place, and in turn, no university need encounter an unexpected drop in numbers. And a generation which has already demonstrated leadership, altruism and care for the environment might feel that has been reciprocated by their elders.

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