The A-level U-turn impact on Oxbridge admissions need to be fair to lower sixth as well as upper sixth.
Next year’s school leavers will be hardest hit by the A level U turn, and the government needs to start planning now.
Impact of the U-turn Overall
The government’s U turn, taken alongside the latest updates from Oxford and Cambridge, with Worcester College, Oxford admitting all offer holders, and Cambridge promising to honour all offers, either this year or next, will have a knock on effect on applicants this year.
To take Cambridge as an example, in their statement they explain that while they will be ensuring that every student who has an offer and meets their conditions will be admitted, not everyone can start in October 2020, because the university makes roughly 1,000 more offers than it has places available each year – 4,500 offers for 3,450 places this year – on the assumption that a fairly large number of offer holders won’t make the grade.
The university, Vice Chancellor Prof Stephen J Toope explains, guarantees all students college student accommodation, as well as small group based teaching, making it impossible for the university to scale up by a thousand students at such short notice.
This means that many students who appeal their A level grades will be offered deferred places, joining the university in 2021.
The statement also makes reassurances that this won’t lead to a shortage of places for students applying in the upcoming UCAS cycle, but there are reasons to be less optimistic that the Vice Chancellor on this note.
How does the U-Turn impact 2021 Applicants Heavily?
Once students are given their teacher assessed grades, this is almost certain to mean that very few students indeed end up missing their offer conditions.
No school has any rational incentive to stop its students from attending their preferred university, and so it is unlikely that any teacher will have knowingly given a student grades that fall short of their firm choice.
Furthermore, any students who miss out on their place will know exactly who to blame, and teachers and schools know this too.
Simply put, there is no rational incentive for any individual school or teacher to cause their student to miss a university offer.
Therefore, the 1,000 odd Cambridge offers that are ‘supposed’ to be missed each year are unlikely to materialise.
So, say that instead of the usual thousand, only half as many students, as usual, miss out on their place at Cambridge, leaving the university 500 or so places oversubscribed ahead of the next admissions cycle.
Short of an enormous hike in places, which Toope has already said is unworkable, this would lead an intake of 3,500 in October 2021, with 500 of those places taken by deferrers, and the remaining 3,000 places for this year’s applicants.
But do Oxford and Cambridge then plan for missed grades in this next cohort?
The government will also have had a year to prepare, and with lower popularity and in the depths of an inevitable recession, will they decide to endure a repeat of this year’s fiasco, or simply show leniency for grades again?
It seems unfair that students who missed half of Year 12 are no less disadvantaged than those who missed half of Year 13.
The U-Turn Impact On places available at Oxbridge in 2021
If Cambridge anticipates a smaller number of missed offers next year, from say 29% of offers being missed (as per this cycle’s planning) to 25%, a very modest change, then in order for everything to ‘fit’, there would only be roughly 4,000 offers made in this upcoming cycle, compared with 4,500 in the last.
Five hundred offers may not sound like much but consider the impact on some of the university’s most popular courses.
This would lead to the number of places for Economics at Cambridge slip from 156 in 2019 to perhaps 135 in 2021, while maybe 25 places to study Law would disappear.
From a 2019 cohort of 281 medics, only 245 or so would be admitted from this year’s group of applicants, as all the factors mentioned above will lead to the remaining places being full before the interviews even start.
The government is right to tackle the high levels of inequality and unfairness its algorithm seems set on generating.
However, these measures need to be calibrated against their knock-on effects for future cohorts of students.
Fairness for this year’s eighteen-year-olds presents an easy political win but is no fairness at all if it punishes next year’s students.
At UniAdmissions, we anticipate Oxbridge admissions to be more competitive than ever in 2021.
The diminished number of places means that candidates will have to work harder to ensure their application stands out amongst the hundreds sent into Oxford and Cambridge.
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