Admissions process next year will be fair, universities minister vows

In a digital event hosted by The Student Room, Michelle Donelan reassured students their chances of going to university had not been damaged

Universities minister Michelle Donelan has said that ensuring the 2021-22 admissions process is fair to students is her top priority, as she sought to reassure year 13s it wouldn’t be harder to win a place at university next summer.

During a webinar hosted by The Student Room yesterday (3 September), Ms Donelan said next year’s exam season is “at the top of my agenda” after students questioned if this year’s school leavers had an unfair advantage in university admissions next year, because they received centre-assessed grades.

The minister said year 13s will sit A-level exams next year. This raises the prospect that universities will make admissions decisions based on both centre-assessed and exam grades, despite concerns these results might not be comparable. The number of A and A* grades this year increased by 2.4 percentage points on last year.

Ms Donelan sought to play down the risk of unfair competition saying her department was “trying to remove all the barriers” so that universities could admit as many of this year’s would-be undergraduates as possible. She also said deferral rates were lowering “day on day” and that universities “are going to be flexible again next year”.

“This isn’t a one-year problem, I’m very alive to that fact, and at the heart of all my decision-making and all of my thinking over the next few weeks and months will be students and their interests,” she added.

At present, students applying for 2021 entry for the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, and most courses in medicine, veterinary medicine/science, and dentistry, must submit their Ucas form by 15 October. Some questioned if this gave year 13s enough time.

Among the solutions for the admissions process being considered by the Department for Education (DfE), said Ms Donelan, was Ucas moving to “flex” deadlines for medical and veterinary courses to ease the transition for year 13s back into full-time education. She did concede that universities were autonomous, and that Oxbridge had already announced “they don’t have flex” in their early application dates.

Asked if students this year should be eligible for tuition fee reductions, Ms Donelan replied: “Things will be different, but they won’t necessarily be inferior.”

After having “months” to prepare for students to returning to campus, universities were expected to demonstrate “an even high quality of innovation” to students when they return to campuses in the next few weeks, she said.

Ms Donelan also took the opportunity to apologise: “The secretary of state has apologised and so has the department and I’ll go on record here as well and apologise for what’s happened on behalf of my department.

“We worked with Ofqual to allow for those grades to be given out in the fairest way. Once we had results day, in the days after it was very apparent that something had gone wrong in that algorithm and there were gross anomalies that were appearing on people’s results slips.”

Read more: More than half of students lacked access to online materials during lockdown, OfS survey suggests

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