Universities across England were in a state of chaos on Monday evening after the government made a pair of humiliating U-turns over A-level grades.
Following the surprise double announcement of the scrapping of Ofqual’s algorithm-generated grades and the lifting of the cap on student numbers at English universities, it was not clear what institutions would do next.
They might be expected to make additional offers on top of the capacity they have already met, or they could cancel all the offers they had made and re-run the offer and clearing system from scratch – seen by some as the fairer option.
It followed a furious five-day backlash from pupils, teachers and parents over a computer algorithm used by Ofqual that saw the A-level grades of almost 40% of students downgraded from what their teachers had originally awarded them.
Thousands of pupils who had been awarded lower grades than expected and missed out on university places will now be given their predicted grades, the Department for Education confirmed.
But the latest announcement will likely lead to an influx of students who had initially missed their university offers and are now able to take up places at their first-choice institutions.
Universities say there may be nowhere for them to go, with staffing, funding and capacity issues meaning they will be unable to admit all the students who now meet the terms of their offers.
Speaking at a briefing on Monday afternoon, Williamson said: “We are already working very closely with the university sector to make sure that we do everything we can do to build as much capacity in there.
“We expect universities to be flexible. We expect them to go above and beyond to be able to honour those commitments.
“That’s why today we have lifted the student number caps in order for universities to be able to expand and put extra capacity into the system.”
But one source at a London university told HuffPost UK that many institutions that are already suffering financially because of the coronavirus pandemic will not have the capacity to take in higher numbers of students.
“It’s a mess,” they said. “We actually don’t have the staff to teach any more [students] because all universities had a giant bonfire of staff to try to save money.
“Some of our courses have limited numbers because of the lab and practical [elements]. All of the health sciences, nursing, medicine, journalism, computer science – they [...] are trying to run labs via social distancing so that’s already massively cut down the space that they have.
“The quick easy government fix is to remove the cap and then let it go to shit, whereas the hard reset and then doing it again is what you need to do to make it work.”
Students are also facing the dilemma of having accepted other university places after first receiving downgraded results, but now being eligible for their first-choice university and course. It is not clear what will happen to universities that filled their capacity with students who no longer want to go there.
Before the coronavirus pandemic hit the UK – or the exam system – Ailsa Mooney from Leicestershire applied to study psychology at the University of Newcastle.
Her predicted grades of AAB would have guaranteed her a place on the course – but when she opened her moderated results on Thursday, she saw her grades had been dropped to ABB.
It meant that she didn’t have what she needed to get in at Newcastle and subsequently accepted a place at her second choice, Swansea University.
Even though she now has the grades following the government’s U-turn on marking, the 18-year-old doesn’t know if she can go to Newcastle University, having been told on Thursday that its psychology course was full.
“It’s so annoying,” she said. “I feel like the government just haven’t thought it through at all and have just messed us all around. It’s really unfair and we have been given no guidance.”
Gavin Williamson has “failed everyone” in the A-level class of 2020, Mooney said. “So many people have missed out on the university they deserve to go to due to a lack of consideration on his behalf.”
Meanwhile, Ruby Porter – who had dreamed of studying criminology at the University of Liverpool – said the education secretary should resign.
Porter, who is 18, needed three B grades in her A-levels to secure a place on the course.
But after all of her predicted grades were lowered by Ofqual, leaving her with BCD, she not only lost out on her place at Liverpool but also her second choice of Nottingham University.
“I was in disbelief about how badly I had been affected by the system, as it wasn’t just one of my grades that had been downgraded – every single one had.”
Porter, who is from Manchester, accepted a place at Sheffield Hallam University through the clearing process.
However, she believes that with her predicted grades of ABC – which she was awarded on Monday – she would have been accepted at Liverpool.
Porter said the only thing for Williamson to do now was to resign – and write a letter of apology to this year’s A-level students.
“The way he has treated A-level students, including myself, is a disgrace,” she said. “He has had five months to sort this out and now I can’t get into my top place university because of this mess.”
Betty Chilwa isn’t sure whether the government’s huge blunder over grades could mean she misses out on going to university altogether this year.
She wanted to study accounting and finance at the prestigious University of Birmingham – a course that requires students to achieve AAB at A-level.
Chilwa, who is from London, was predicted ABC – grades that she knows other students were accepted onto the course with. But on results day, she was told her grades had been moderated to BCD.
When she called Birmingham University on Monday after her grades were restored, an automated message told her that all of the university’s clearing places had already been filled.
It means the 18-year-old currently has no idea what she will be doing once the university semester begins in the autumn.
She said she also contacted Aston University, but that they told her they were unsure whether they would have a place for her.
“I’ve honestly been really sad for the past couple of days as all my hard work seems to have gone down the drain,” Chilwa said.
“Today has been both good and bad as my grades have gone up as a result but unfortunately it’s pretty much useless as I’m not left with many other options.”
Meanwhile universities across the UK have pledged to “do all we can” to support students who are waiting to receive their new results.
HuffPost UK spoke to representatives from University College London, the University of St Andrews, Sheffield Hallam University and Queen Mary University of London, who have said they would be accepting all students who met the terms of their original offer.
A spokesperson for the Universities UK lobby group told HuffPost UK in a statement: “The government will need to step up and support universities through the challenges created by this late policy change.
“We are seeking urgent clarification and advice from Government on a number of crucial issues.”
The university admissions body, Ucas, has advised students to take time and not to make any decisions about their future plans immediately.
“At the moment, 69% (193,420) of 18-year-old main scheme applicants across the UK are placed with their first-choice university, which is higher than at the same point last year,” it said in a statement.
“For those students who were not placed with their firm (or insurance) choice university, our advice is that you don’t need to make your decision immediately.
“Speak with your parents, guardians and teachers and then your first conversation will need to be to your firm (or insurance) choice university.
“We will be issuing new advice for students and schools and this will be sent directly to students as soon as they are able to take a decision.”