Many students who were initially downgraded by the government’s failed grading algorithm are yet to find out if they will take up their places at Cambridge in 2020. Louis Ashworth

What caused the admissions fiasco?

On Results Day last Thursday (13/08), students awoke to find that 39.1% of A-Level results had been downgraded from teachers’ assessments due to an algorithm by exams regulator Ofqual - sparking widespread criticism from schools, sixth form colleges, MPs, and public figures across the country. 

Statistical analysis revealed deep inequalities in the grading algorithm utilised by Ofqual. Pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds were most likely to be marked down, with students from low and middle-income backgrounds seeing a drop of around 10% in assignment of grades C or above. It was alleged that the algorithm favoured independent schools over state schools and colleges, and that it entrenched regional inequalities. 

On Monday (17/08), Education Secretary Gavin Williamson and exams regulator Ofqual chair Roger Taylor apologised for the upheaval, announcing that teachers’ estimates would be awarded to A Level and GCSE students where the grading algorithm awarded students a lower mark than they were predicted. 

Cambridge University subsequently committed to accepting all students offered a place this academic year who met the conditions of their offer. However, alongside other Russell Group universities, it has come under fire for stating that some offer-holders will have to defer until 2021 as colleges are significantly over-capacity. 

Varsity spoke to offer-holders whose places were put on the line by the failed grading algorithm, and whose places at Cambridge are still unconfirmed one week later. 

“It is really upsetting to be a victim of this type of discrimination” 

One Murray Edwards offer-holder was initially rejected for entry in 2020 after their grades were reduced through standardisation, despite the fact that even their standardised grades met the course requirements for their subject. 

Soon after receiving their grades, the A-Level student found themselves unable to contact Murray Edwards. Furthermore Murray Edwards offered them “no guidance at all” about the appeals process through which students were previously encouraged to challenge their standardised grade. 

They stated that the college originally gave them a “very strong impression of being supportive and inclusive”, but that their experience since last Thursday has been “quite the opposite”. Lamenting the access implications of grade standardisation, they stated that “it is really upsetting to be a victim of this type of discrimination myself”. 

The student has since received confirmation of their place to study Economics at Murray Edwards in October, commenting that they were “hugely relieved” and that “communication [from the college] improved significantly after the government U-turned.”

Varsity has asked Murray Edwards for comment.

“I am not convinced by my college’s statement about looking at individual cases”

One state-educated, low-income student and part-timer carer had their Centre Assessed Grades significantly downgraded by Ofqual’s standardisation process and subsequently had their offer suspended. 

Describing themselves as “upset” by the process, they stated that “there wasn’t communication around the rejection or at least condolences offered that my case is genuinely unfair”. 

They described themselves as “not convinced” by claims that colleges are looking at cases individually, stating that “if anything I felt like I and my school had to force them to see me”. 

However, they praised the University’s outreach work as “super helpful for me to access information and the Oxbridge experience”, but expressed concerns that “the situation right now [...] is undoing a lot of that hard work”. 

One week later, they too have still not heard if they will be able to take up their place this year. They described going through “all the emotions of a rejection” and emphasised “that knock in my confidence will always stick with me”. 


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They remarked that “the college [which they wished to keep anonymous] has been doing their best”, but described waiting to find out about their place as “excruciating”. 

They referenced financial concerns among their worries about a possible forced deferral from the University, as Durham University yesterday (19/08) became the first university to offer financial incentives in the form of a bursary and guarantee of accommodation to offer-holders who agree to defer until 2021. 

“This is the University’s chance to fulfill their commitment to BAME, working class pupils”

One student and young carer, describing themselves as coming from a “BAME, working class background”, was marked far lower than their Centre Assessed Grades by the grading system. 

They described their college, Robinson, as having been “kind”, but stated that “the guidelines that they [gave] seem to really unfairly target pupils like me”, noting that this undermines the “reputation for access and outreach” that the college has cultivated. 

They urged the University in future to conduct “more outreach, target underperforming schools and take a stronger look into the contextual issues pupils face”. 

Varsity has asked Robinson for comment.

“[My college] came across as disinterested in my situation”

Another state-educated student, the first in their family to attend university, described the situation last week as “an absolute farce”. They expressed disappointment with communication from Selwyn college, stating that they repeatedly sent “copy and paste responses”, which came across as “disinterested in my situation”. 

Before the government U-turn, they described the University as “kowtowing” to “an algorithm which favours private schools”. 

Since the University’s commitment to accept all of this year’s cohort of offer-holders, the College has not provided further information to the student, stating that it is seeking “further clarification” and is “unable” to comment on the situation. 

Varsity has asked Selwyn for comment.

“I believe that the University has overall improved [in widening participation] over the past few years”

One offer-holder was placed in the Summer Pool after they did not meet the conditions of their offer from Newnham following grade standardisation. 

They praised the College’s communication throughout the period of uncertainty and described themselves as “grateful” that it was “able to keep in contact well during this time”. 

However, they noted that they felt “let down” by the Summer Pool process, and felt that the decision was met “too quickly”. 

Referring to the University’s statement affirming its commitment to widening participation, the student praised its efforts and stated that “from my experience alone, I was given a fair chance throughout my admissions process at Cambridge”, blaming the Ofqual grading algorithm for recent uncertainties. 

Due to the U-turn, they have met their offer conditions, but still await communication from Newnham on whether or not they will take up their place this year or in 2021. 

Newnham College responded to request for comment affirming that it is “looking forward to welcoming all incoming first-years to the Newnham community”, and celebrating its highest ever number of state school students among the cohort, and the number of students eligible for free school meals, which is above the University average.” 

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