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A-Levels fiasco: Gavin Williamson lifts university places cap amid calls to ‘step up’ help for higher education

Labour said universities ‘now need clarity and support’ after the A-Levels U-turn. (PA)

3 min read

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson is lifting the cap on university places in a bid to help students who may have lost out on their first choice amid the A-Levels grading fiasco.

The Cabinet minister said higher education institutions “won’t be fined” for going above the number of places they can normally offer.

But university groups said they were still seeking “urgent clarification and advice” from the Government over a host of issues.

The move came after a major U-turn on the grading system used to determine this year’s A-Level and GCSE results after exams were cancelled because the coronavirus pandemic.

Students had been given their marks based on an algorithm which saw almost 40% of predicted grades in England downgraded, and led to some missing out on university offers.

But Ofqual announced on Monday afternoon it would allow teacher-assessed grades to be used instead of those moderated by the controversial system.

In a statement on Monday afternoon the exam regulator said “after reflection” it had decided the best way forward is “to award grades on the basis of what teachers submitted”.

And Mr Williamson said of universities: “They won't be fined and we're removing those caps on every single university in the United Kingdom, so that they have the ability to expand the number of places, welcoming more students into those universities, as many as possible.”


But Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK, which represents higher education institutions, said: "Today's policy change will mean that more students will have the grades that match the offer of their first choice university. 

“This will cause challenges at this late stage in the admissions process - capacity, staffing, placements and facilities - particularly with the social distance measures in place.”

He added: "Universities will do everything they can to work through these issues in the days ahead. 

“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.

"Almost 70% of students are already placed with their first-choice institution, but those who are not should think carefully about their next steps, speak to their parents, guardians and teachers and get into contact with their preferred university to advise on their options."

That view was echoed by Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary Kate Green, who warned: “Students and universities now need clarity and support to ensure that the past week of Tory chaos doesn't rob anyone of the opportunities they deserve.”

Paul Whiteman, the general secretary of school leaders’ union the NAHT, said the Government’s U-turn on results “may already be too late for some A-level students who have already missed out on their first choice of university and course”.

He added: “Every day of delay is going to have loaded more and more difficulty onto universities and their capacity to meet all of the demand for places that will now inevitably come their way.

"For them, the problem is far from over.”

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