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U.K. Exam Chaos Prompts Stampede for College Places

LONDON — The calls to Newcastle University started early this week, flooding in at the rate of 1,500 in a day. At Reading University, staff were forced to set up a makeshift phone bank in the library. Durham University, facing overwhelming demand for places in September’s freshman class, offered a cash reward to some young people if they deferred their education for a year.

Across Britain, colleges have been scrambling to deal with the fallout from a debacle over examination grading that plunged the world of education into turmoil.

When the coronavirus pandemic made traditional testing impossible for A-levels — the qualifications that decide college entrance in England and Wales — a temporary grading system was put together in England using an algorithm to predict what results individual students would have achieved.

But that lowered around 40 percent of estimated grades, hitting students from poorer families especially hard and prompting such an outcry that the system was scrapped on Monday in favor of assessments made by teachers. Separate systems in Scotland and Wales have undergone similar retreats.

While the shift was widely welcomed, it left universities with a problem.

In the British system, young people list their preferred colleges and are offered places on the condition that they attain specific grades in their final school exams. Suddenly, thousands of students who had been rejected under one set of scores were clamoring for what they regarded as their rightful university places under a second, higher set.

More selective colleges found themselves with too many acceptances, while the less selective risked having too few.

“I have never seen anything like this,” said Prof. Julie Sanders, a senior manager at Newcastle University, who described a situation she would once have thought “totally unimaginable,” as overworked staff fielded calls, their morale maintained by supplies of ice cream.

For students caught up in the confusion, recent days have been like riding an academic roller coaster. “Students had dreamed of being here and they felt that was slipping away before their eyes,” Professor Sanders said. Then the despair for some turned to relief and, shortly thereafter, confusion.

The crisis has underscored the country’s reliance on a narrow examination system that shapes the future of many young people by deciding where they go to university. And it has hit home at a moment of unusual disquiet.

“For many families, it compounds all the other uncertainties the U.K. is facing,” said Prof. Mark Fellowes, a senior manager at Reading University. “There is Covid, and people trying to adapt to that, and there is a recession around the corner with worries about whether people will have jobs. It has added another layer of uncertainty.”

The politician responsible for the confusion in England is the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, who initially did not want to accept grades estimated by teachers because experience suggested that such judgments were overly optimistic.

Mr. Williamson instructed the exam regulator, Ofqual, to create a system that protected against “grade inflation” by adjusting teachers’ predictions to reflect the past performance of their schools. Teachers’ assessments of those in smaller classes were given more weight, but that helped fee-paying schools with better resources, and tilted the system against some bright pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The chaos deepened as Mr. Williamson insisted he would not change course only to be forced to do exactly that by a fierce backlash.

“They didn’t understand until too late how people would feel, and that this tapped into a real sense of unfairness,” said Judith Judd, a former editor of The Times Educational Supplement and former chairwoman of the governing body of Essex University.

Universities were already facing serious problems before this episode. Many rely heavily on tuition fees from international students, who may be deterred from traveling by the coronavirus. And many universities also are facing extra costs as they put new social distancing rules in place.

One recent report suggested that as many as 13 universities were in danger of bankruptcy, though it did not name them.

Newcastle University is not in that category but had retrenched by pausing building projects and freezing some recruitment of academics. Now, based on the calls the university has received, Professor Sanders expects to admit 200 to 300 more students than anticipated, though she cannot be sure yet.

“We are dealing with this in the middle of designing a socially distanced campus, so the jigsaw is incredibly complex,” she said.

The situation is further aggravated by the pile up of students at the most prestigious universities. There may be no official hierarchy, but Britain’s higher education system is highly stratified, with Oxford and Cambridge at the pinnacle, followed by a set of 24 universities called the “Russell Group” that forms a sort of extended British Ivy League.

Younger institutions, particularly those that once focused mostly on technical education, tend to be at the bottom of the heap.

Some of their more prestigious rivals hope to deal with their surplus of students by persuading some to defer their studies for a year. Durham University has said it will offer those who do so payments “to help with their transition,” promising more detail soon.

And for medical schools, and some other institutions that offer courses that rely on laboratory and other facilities, capacity is a particular problem.

Yet, if students defer their studies, the impact could be felt by next year as those scheduled to take A-levels in 2021 could find many places already taken.

That is not the only complication. After the first set of results were issued, many students reluctantly accepted a second, third, fourth or fifth option, decisions they can often now reverse.

For many universities this will mean losing some students but gaining others. But according to Professor Fellowes, the risk is of a “cascading effect” where students pull out of universities deemed less prestigious, depriving them of revenue.

The impact, he added, could be severe on “some universities that are seen as less attractive and that could really make them vulnerable.”

Critics argue that the other weakness exposed by the chaos is a structural one.

In recent years the British government, preoccupied with grade inflation, has moved away from grading through classroom work, placing more focus on final examinations. Among those who championed that approach was Michael Gove, a senior cabinet minister and former education secretary.

Yet, without the examinations, this year there was little information to fall back on.

“This crisis has been so great,” Ms. Judd said, “largely because our system makes the A-level such a high-stakes exam.”

Source: NYT > World News

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