Whilst the University and colleges have said that they aim to be flexible when dealing with this year’s A-level results and offer confirmations, we are deeply concerned that the students who have been unjustifiably downgraded so as to miss their offers by a large margin are not being fairly considered.
The students who have been most catastrophically impacted will disproportionately be those from more disadvantaged backgrounds, due to the inherently discriminatory nature of this year’s exam grading system, which has used a statistical model based on schools’ past performance to moderate the results predicted by teachers. By negatively impacting state comprehensive schools where attainment is less consistent, this system has unfairly punished BME students, low-income students, and those who have experienced other forms of disadvantage. It is worth noting that these students are also disproportionately more likely to have been underpredicted in the first place , with the specific impact of this on BME students outlined in a previous statement by the Cambridge SU BME Campaign.
The government’s decision to accept the use of mock results is not sufficient to address the issues; there is no standardisation of mock exams from one school to the next, and many were cancelled or sat under disadvantageous circumstances due to the pandemic. Further, the students most adversely affected by the downgrading of A-Level results are also discouraged or prevented from appealing by high fees, which many of these schools will be unable to afford. In their recently published open letter which calls for the acceptance of students with contextual flags who missed their offers, the Cambridge SU Class Act Campaign also explain how this group of most negatively affected students are likely to be less financially able to take a year out in the event of needing to re-sit exams not just because these re-sits cost over £100 per subject.
Similar open letters expressing serious concerns about the consequences of this year’s grading system and calling for colleges to confirm all offers made in the 2020-21 admissions cycle have been started by students and alumni at individual colleges, such as Jesus College. Worcester College, Oxford has just publicly committed to this in a groundbreaking and much-welcomed announcement that they will be accepting all UK offer-holders irrespective of results.
Cambridge University and its Colleges should follow the example of Worcester College to proactively redress the injustice of this year’s grading system by extending maximum flexibility not just to near-misses but to those who have obviously been victims of arbitrary, discriminatory downgrading. There should be a consistent policy across colleges to adjust their admissions accordingly in an acknowledgment of the inequalities which have been exacerbated by this grading system, with state school and particularly offer holders with widening participation flags being accepted. These students were originally given offers based on their predicted grades and interview performances, meaning that they clearly ‘deserved’ their places according to the University's own standards of rigour and excellence. This more than justifies admitting them now, considering the gross unfairness of the grading system.
The University should support the joint statement from NUS and UCU, which calls for teacher-assessed grades to be reinstated with no moderation, a fair and free appeals process to combat individual cases of disrimination, an overhaul of the current system of exams and grading, and a longer-term commitment to tackling educational inequality. At the very minimum, the University should offer to cover the re-sit costs for any state comprehensive and WP-flagged offer holders who choose this option, and consider extending support to address the financial difficulties that many will face if they are required to defer their offers.
In light of the University’s #GoingToCambridge statement featuring the “success stories” of students who have overcome barriers to receive and meet offers to study at Cambridge, we believe that the mismanagement of this year’s A-Level results represents a serious setback in the University’s ongoing efforts at widening participation. It is imperative that affected individuals are given the special consideration and support that this situation demands. The University might be able to broadly remain in line with its access targets this year by flexibly accepting near-misses and opening courses up to adjustment, but the detrimental impact on particular individuals must be acknowledged and urgently addressed.