'Too little, too late': British students left frustrated over college admissions mess

Ell Thomas

U.K. students due to attend college this year have shared their concerns and frustration after a computer algorithm initially used to standardize grades put their places in jeopardy.  

Despite the British government announcing Monday that it was reversing its use of the algorithm to adjust grades, which determine admission into U.K. colleges, students are still angry. 

Ell Thomas told CNBC the U-turn was "a bit too little, too late." 

The algorithm was used to moderate teacher grading, as students were unable to take exams due to the coronavirus pandemic, so predicted grades were used as a basis. 

Thomas missed out on her place to study human, social and political sciences at the University of Cambridge because her grades were lowered by the algorithm. 

She previously attended Lord Williams's Upper School, a "run-of-the-mill" state school, in Oxfordshire and would be the first in her family to go to college.  

Thomas was previously predicted 3 A*s — the equivalent of an A+ and therefore the highest grade a student can achieve. She got two A*s and an A in her mock exams, which are like the PSATs in the United States, and she was precited three As for her summer exams.  

On results day last week, however, she was awarded with two As and a B grade, meaning she missed out on her place at Cambridge. 

Thomas' B grade was sociology, a subject that she claimed was popular at her school and one it historically had not performed as well in. 

The U.K.'s exam body, the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual), said that it asked teachers to submit predicted grades, as well as to rank students in each subject.

Ofqual then applied a statistical standardization model to ensure "fairness" nationally. This took into account the historic performance of a school in particular subjects. But for subjects with a smaller class size the standardization calculation put more weight on teacher-predicted grades. 

Nearly two-fifths of students saw their predicted grades lowered by this standardizing "algorithm." 

Indeed, Thomas said that two close school friends who studied a more specialist math course and subsequently had a smaller class size, did not see their predicted grades lowered by the algorithm, and secured their places at Cambridge. 

"So two of my best friends basically got in and I didn't purely because of some algorithm," she said.  

The algorithm has therefore been accused of widening existing inequality within the college admissions system, by basing its calculation on the school and class size. 

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In fact, Britain's opposition Labour party called the algorithm "unlawful" in an open letter to U.K. Education Secretary Gavin Williamson and Ofqual, on Wednesday, alleging that it breached "a range of anti-discrimination legislation."

The debacle has also seen calls for Prime Minister Boris Johnson to fire Williamson or questions as to whether the education secretary would resign.

Williamson said he's "incredibly sorry" for the exam distress and said his main priority now is to ensure students get fair results

Thomas said the whole situation had left her feeling "powerless" — "It's just luck ... and I don't think my future should be decided by a lucky computer." 

Scramble for places 

While Thomas' grades have now been bumped back up to what she was originally predicted to get with Monday's U-turn, she was still waiting to hear from Cambridge as to whether her place was still available. 

College places in the U.K. are mostly confirmed and assigned on results day, with admissions largely conditional on students' grades. 

So the turnaround on grading, making more students eligible for their original college choice has created another problem — a scramble for university places. 

Thomas said that while an option might be to defer her place and take a gap year, it's something she neither wants, nor can afford to do. 

In an attempt to address this problem, on Thursday, the government announced that it had agreed with the "higher education sector" to offer students a place at their first choice college, if they achieved the grades. 

But it also specified that if maximum capacity was reached on their course the option of an alternative course or a deferred place would be offered. Durham University, in northeast England, is offering students who defer their place until 2021 a bursary, "to help with their transition to university life." 

In its latest announcement, the government also lifted the cap on the number of places on domestic medicine, dentistry, veterinary science and undergraduate teacher courses, promising additional funding, to support the move.

Amy Turnbull


Amy Turnbull is still waiting to hear back on whether she will be able to study medicine at Lancaster University this year. 

In 2019, Turnbull broke her back in a skiing accident, meaning she had to defer sitting her exams until this year but the pandemic prevented that from going ahead. 

Instead, her school in the northwest of England based her predicted grades on mock exams she took just five weeks after her accident last year, when she got three B grades. 

The algorithm then downgraded those results to three Cs, despite the fact that she had previously been predicted an A* and two As, higher than three As she needed to get into Lancaster. 

Turnbull had been classed as an external candidate this year, where she was expected to study from home but she said her school wouldn't accept any of her work from home as evidence for her predicted grades. 

She is appealing, and waiting to hear whether there will be more places at Lancaster this year. 

"I am quite frustrated ... I think frustration is the main thing I feel because I just feel like at the moment I can't do anything or get my voice heard," she said.

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