A-levels crisis: the alternatives to hyper-selective English HE

By spotlighting the social sorting process for 18-year-olds, exam fiasco raises questions?about ways to?reduce the hierarchy between universities

September 8, 2020
Celebrating exam results
Source: iStock

The situation around this year’s exam results in England has had journalists reaching for their (quite limited) internal thesauri to find synonyms to describe things that go really, really badly wrong. This has been a crisis-fiasco-debacle of the highest order, doing huge damage to the government’s standing.

But why was it a crisis-fiasco-debacle?

That, one might answer, is down to the decision made by Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, to cancel exams amid the coronavirus pandemic rather than opt for German-style socially distanced high school exams. Or in his failure to heed warnings that the algorithm consequently used to calculate grades would be unfair to many individual students and would advantage those at private schools (the algorithm was abandoned in a storm of outrage after results were published, with Mr Williamson U-turning to allow the use of teacher-predicted grades).

Those policy decisions and errors did, of course, create the crisis. But, more fundamentally, these errors caused a crisis because A-levels have such high stakes – which, in turn, is because of the socially stratified nature of England’s higher education system.

Admission to the most selective – and thus most prestigious – universities confers lifelong advantages in the employment market. Small variations between grades can have potentially momentous consequences for individuals’ life chances, all at the age of?18.

In the wake of the crisis, we might ask: why does England have such a steeply hierarchical university system? And are there any ways of moving towards a system that could be fairer to individuals and more beneficial to society?

“The status differences in UK higher education are sharp by international standards, yet I?doubt very much there is the same steepness in the intrinsic quality of first-degree education,” said Simon Marginson, professor of higher education at the University of Oxford.

He added that “my sense of the national landscape in the context of the international landscape tells me that UK universities are nearly all good in quality at first-degree and taught-master’s level, and offer a similar kind of teaching and learning product and experience”.

Far from reflecting the quality of teaching or experience, the pronounced status hierarchies among English universities are in fact “historically reproduced” and “based on research, where there is a very sharp differentiation in terms of resources and outputs, especially leading-edge science”, said Professor Marginson.

A university’s level of research resources “has little impact on, or relevance to, the quality of the first-degree experience, aside from the reputational value of the degree”, he continued. “It is the last factor, though, which drives student and family choices.”

Issues around A-level attainment are “critical because we do have a highly selective university system”, observed Anna Vignoles, professor of education at the University of Cambridge, who has researched the link between the institution students attend and subsequent graduate earnings.

“In terms of labour market outcomes…our selective system does mean that which institution you attend affects your earnings,” she said. “Students are therefore right to be concerned about which university they get to go to.” She added that “earnings differences across subjects are large and so that matters, too”.

There is a close link between social class, A-level attainment, the selectivity of an institution and subsequent graduate earnings. One paper that Professor Vignoles worked on found that differences in graduate earnings between institutions were “in large part driven by differences in entry requirements” between universities.

With A levels, students are sorted into different kinds of university according to their grades, which often reflect their social background. Then the hierarchy between universities, and the sharply different way these universities are perceived by employers, amplifies these social divides.

Tim Blackman, vice-chancellor of the Open University, said this system defined people “by a snapshot of who you are at 18 rather than who you can become”.

“What our higher education admission system does is use grades to filter students to courses and institutions of greater or lesser prestige depending on how high they set the bar,” he added. “This is on the whole nothing to do with whether the student will succeed on the course – which should be a function of the quality of teaching rather than a student’s prior attainment – and everything to do with social elitism, essentially a kind of social-class sorting.”

And selectivity could become even more intense, and more closely aligned to social divides, in future admission cycles.

“Next year’s cohort will have lost three months of schooling – or thereabouts – [and] will have to take exams that may or may not be adjusted to reflect the loss of schooling these students had in Year?12,” said Professor Vignoles. There are concerns that disruption to school education in lockdown will have impacted most severely on disadvantaged students.

Plus, added Professor Vignoles, next year’s cohort “will have to compete with this year’s students who have been awarded record numbers of A*/A grades” via their predicted grades, potentially reducing the number of places at the most selective institutions, as a result of 2020 school-leavers deferring university entry to 2021, or universities having a larger-than-usual intake this year and hence having fewer spaces in subsequent cycles.

In the longer-term future, Mark Corver, founder of the dataHE consultancy and former director of analysis and research at Ucas, predicted that university entry “will likely grow progressively more difficult over the coming decade…because of rising demand driven by cohort sizes” and a “weak employment market”.

This “would be felt most acutely at higher tariff [institutions] as greater proportions of parents are university educated and will likely have set an expectation orientated towards higher tariff”, Mr Corver argued. “As the number of 18-year-olds [whose parents are university educated] increases rapidly, the stock of places at higher tariff will be under particular pressure.”

If more intense selection is set to heighten the stakes of A levels even further, what are the alternatives?

A different model for England “would be a broader curriculum at A level, more inclusive admission with universities being more similar in their intake, a longer degree and perhaps a higher rate of failure as students are selected out during their studies”, said Professor Vignoles. “This alternative model would require major reform and obviously would be more expensive. It does have advantages, not least that students would be able to study a broader range of subjects for longer.”

Professor Blackman has long advocated a move towards “comprehensive universities”: institutions that would be much less selective and would have socially mixed student intakes.

“I have made the argument that if comprehensive education works best for secondary and further education – and study after study has demonstrated that – why do we abandon the comprehensive principle in higher education? No one has been able to answer that question,” he said.

One of his arguments is that comprehensive universities would mean more students living at home: with no national market in institutional prestige, many young people would choose not to move away, thus reducing the government’s outlay on living costs within the student funding system.

Professor Marginson thinks the way forward “would be to build the middle- and lower-tier universities in terms of research capability and activity – possibly in conjunction with some mergers – so as to evolve a system which is more balanced in terms of capacity and status, more like that of the Netherlands or Germany, but retaining some top institutions”.

“If it is felt that the country cannot afford 80 to 100 research-intensive universities, then a new binary system, with a top layer of 50 to 60 universities joined to a revamped second university sector, in which HE and FE are combined, would be a rational option,” he added.

“Building the middle” could have impact in “creating equity, because it creates a strong second layer that both creates competitive pressure on the top and brings the hierarchy more into the reach of those at the bottom”, Professor Marginson argued.

Meanwhile, at the utopian end of the spectrum, Financial Times columnist Simon Kuper has proposed stopping Oxbridge from teaching undergraduates, and making the two universities research only, to end their “distortion of British life”. In “countries without elite universities, it’s rare for one class to capture the national heights: careers are decided more in adulthood, by which time people’s trajectories depend slightly more on their achievements than on their parents”, Mr Kuper writes.

But the most direct means to erode the social hierarchy among universities involves employers changing their attitudes towards recruitment. Prestige employers who make hiring decisions based on whether an applicant has attended a prestige university are in effect outsourcing their recruitment to the admissions offices of the most selective universities. But some employers – most notably the UK Civil Service and Deloitte UK – have introduced “university-blind” interviews where the name of the university an applicant attended is not revealed at that stage of the recruitment process. A recent survey of 150 recruiters by the Institute of Student Employers found that 17?per cent use university-blind recruitment.

Professor Blackman said that “this trend to anonymised and competency-based selection and recruitment for jobs will start to undermine the selective system and what it stands for. It is what graduates can do and not where they have studied that will best serve the country’s economic needs.”

There are elements to these proposals that one can imagine interesting a potential future Labour administration – but perhaps they should interest the Conservative government, too.

The government has pledged to prioritise non-graduates and the creation of a “German-style further education system”. But until those who go the vocational route can compete for jobs with graduates from high-prestige universities, the “parity of esteem” for vocational education that the government seeks will remain a cliché of ministerial speeches. Notably, the German vocational system that ministers aspire to is twinned with a relatively egalitarian higher education system, without a sharp hierarchy of selection between universities, where students often attend their local university.

Unless there is more interrogation of the idea of England’s “meritocracy” based on exam results at 18, this year will not be the end of A-levels injustice.


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Reader's comments (1)

There are some good points here but Professor Marginson has clearly not worked in the same range of institutions that I have. It is by no means true that there are similar standards across UK universities from my experience. How could there be when some ask for A* grades and others for much lower ones? If you are a top student, you can manage your own learning and just need to be pointed in the right direction. For others, the system resembles a school and this explains the dissatisfaction of many HE staff. We did not sign up to be school teachers (having one as a father was enough to put me off that option). The government is on to something by suggesting an expansion of FE since that would result in happier students and staff. The former would break into groups that would have experiences that fit their talents and the latter would see a return to working in true HIGHER education.

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