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Universities ask Gavin Williamson for ‘significant financial support’ after A-levels U-turn

Vice-chancellors said institutions would now need help “to stabilise their finances” in light of the U-turn.

3 min read

Universities are demanding “significant financial support” from the Government after being asked to take on more pupils in the wake of a government U-turn on exam grading.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson on Monday confirmed that a cap on university places would be lifted as pupils who received worse-than-expected results under a controversial algorithm were able to instead use teachers’ estimated grades.

The move triggered a scramble for places among students who are now able to approach their first choices after initially missing out on offers.

But, in a letter to the Education Secretary from Universities UK, seen by the PA news agency, vice-chancellors said institutions who were missing out on expected students would now need help “to stabilise their finances” in light of the U-turn.

“The move to using centre-assessed grades will rightly address the inequalities suffered by many students from disadvantaged backgrounds by use of the original algorithm,” they said.

“However, it will also result in significant overall grade inflation leading to significant decreases in planned enrolments at a number of institutions as students opt for higher tariff courses.

“Such institutions whose financial plans were based on the agreed temporary student number controls will now require additional government financial support.”

That view was echoed by the University and College Union (UCU) and National Union of Students (NUS), who have signed their own joint letter to Mr Williamson.

In it, the unions warn that the lifting of the student cap will “remove one of the only interventions that the government has made to help mitigate the financial impact of the Covid crisis on universities”.

And they said: “While it is still unclear exactly what the distribution of domestic students across higher education will be, it is widely anticipated that institutions will move as much as possible to honour their offers.

“This will likely lead to expanded recruitment at high-tariff institutions at the expense of lower-tariff universities, shifting the financial pain from the Covid crisis onto many of the institutions that play a vital role in widening participation and social mobility.”

Universities UK is meanwhile warning that medical schools — where places remain limited — may now have to turn prospective students away amid a surge in numbers with the grades to get in.

Places on medical courses are capped on grounds of cost and the impact on the NHS of accommodating trainees.

The letter says: "The role of universities in training the medical workforce is essential for all regions and nations of the UK, as clearly shown by our members' response to the Covid-19 pandemic."

The warnings come after the first meeting of a new task force aimed at supporting universities affected by the exams U-turn. 

In a statement, education minister Michelle Donelan said: “We are working closely with the higher education sector to understand the challenges facing universities and provide as much support as we can.

“I led the first meeting of our new taskforce and I will hold meetings every day with the sector to resolve these issues.

“We are supporting universities, including by announcing our intention to remove temporary student number controls and working with them to help them prioritise students and uphold their first choice either this coming year, or as a last resort the following year.

“We announced a package of support for the sector during the pandemic, including bringing forward tuition fee and research funding, and a scheme to assess any restructuring support higher education providers may need.”

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