Public Exam and University News, August 2023

Public exam news

This summer we return to the same grading standards as were used in 2019.  That means awarding the same proportion of students to each grade as in 2019.  So if, for example, 10% of students in 2019 got a GCSE grade 9 in Latin, this year roughly that proportion will get a grade 9.

Each subject has a different grade distribution to reflect the fact that some subjects have students across the whole ability range (such as English GCSE) while other subjects may take disproportionately able students (such as Latin GCSE).

This method of grading exams is called comparable outcomes.  Is it a ‘fix’?  No, because exam boards (led by Ofqual) can depart from the 2019 grade distribution if they can prove that the standard of the students’ work has gone up (or down).  For maths and English GCSEs, a large sample of GCSE pupils sit a National Reference Test each March which tells Ofqual if the standard in these two subjects has gone up or down; Ofqual use this to adjust the comparable outcomes grade distributions.

What is the point of the comparable outcomes grading system then?  The aim is to stop grade inflation (which tends to undermine qualifications) and to establish a standard that teachers can understand, and which helps them pitch the right level of teaching.  They also need to be able to predict grades accurately.  If a teacher does not know what a GCSE grade 4 or 9 looks like, there is a danger they will teach to the wrong level or predict badly.

So, what will happen to grades in 2023?  Because grades were artificially inflated by the Covid and post-Covid measures in 2020, 2021 and 2022 we can expect grades to fall this year.  But this fall will not be the same in all schools – inevitably some schools will see no fall from 2022 to 2023, others will see a big fall.  In individual schools some subjects will fall more than others.

Another point to note is that last year (2022) parts of the syllabuses were cut to make exams easier.  This year there have been no cuts – syllabuses are longer.  This a good thing because over the past three years students have been going to university knowing less than they did in 2019.

There will be a focus of interest on differences between different parts of the country and different types of pupils.  We know that those taking A-levels this year did not sit GCSEs at all due to Covid.  Will they be weaker as a result?  We know that some schools were impacted by Covid much more than others and we know that a large number of children from disadvantaged homes have had poor attendance records; these things will impact results in some schools.  The gap between poorer and richer children will probably widen.

Having said all that, there will be some generosity in the system.  Ofqual have said “We will review the quality of student work and will make allowances this summer where national performance is lower than before the pandemic due to disruption. This means that a typical student who would have achieved, for example, a B grade in A level geography before the pandemic, will be just as likely to get a B in geography in 2023, even if their performance in the assessments is a little weaker.”

Ofqual will require exam boards to award GCSE French and German more generously than in the past, following their announcement in 2019 that they would seek better alignment between these subjects and GCSE Spanish.  French and German are in decline and one reason is that they are difficult subjects – too many pupils do less well in them than in other subjects.

The other focus of interest will be the relative growth or decline in popularity of different school subjects.

At A-level this year German, music, and drama continued to fall in popularity, while computing saw a sharp increase, with A-level entries up 15% on last year and 65% since 2019.  Entries for Spanish and French are down 13% year-on-year, while performing arts A-level entries have dropped by almost a fifth. Art and design subjects have also shown a drop, but business studies entries have risen. Last summer saw English literature fall out of the top 10 most popular subjects at A-level for the first time; figures for this year show a slight rise of 3% in entries.

At A-level most subjects show incredible differences in take-up between boys and girls.  Look for example at the female take-up of Psychology, the second biggest A-level after Maths.  Or Computing and Physics, dominated by boys.

Source:  JCQ, 2022

University news

University entry will be harder this year for several reasons:

*Because of rising numbers of 18-year-olds.  There will be 200,000 more 18-year-olds in 2030 compared to 2022.

* Universities are taking more international students because the value of the £9,250 tuition fee for UK students has been eaten away by inflation.  Foreign students pay much more (£22,000 typically, much greater for some courses) and were 1 in 5 of the 2022 entry.

The situation is especially bad for medicine because the number of places is capped at 7500 pa.  They can recruit 7.5% from overseas.  This year 85% of British medic applicants were rejected.

Nick Hillman, the director of the Higher Education Policy Institute think tank and a former government special adviser, warned of a “scandal waiting to happen”. “Every extra foreigner displaces a Brit because the colleges don’t want to get any bigger at an undergraduate level,” he said.

Mark Corver, the ex-director of analysis at UCAS, told The Sunday Telegraph that universities were sharply increasing the proportion of international students in a “desperate scramble” to keep up funding levels. Corver said that the share of places given to international students by the most selective universities could rise to 30% this autumn – up from a quarter last year, meaning up to 10,000 fewer places for UK students.

So universities have to decide…do they take more overseas students to maintain budgets?  But does this increase the risk of over-reliance on overseas students as well as putting off home students?

In 2022 28,000 A-level students who applied to UCAS got no offer – a 75% increase on 2019.

In the past three years many students have been admitted to university with significantly lower A-level grades than they had been asked for.  A high proportion made their first-choice university.  That will not be the case in 2023.

*Student loan changes

Student loans look like being a huge problem for the general taxpayer in years to come because so many students never repay their loans, at least not in full.  But the money borrowed still has to be paid off by someone and if former university students are not paying then the general taxpayer will have to.  Only a quarter of undergraduates are expected to repay their loan in full, and only 53 per cent of the total student debt will ever be repaid.

For that reason, from this year student loans become less generous in two ways:

*you only have to repay your loan if you earn more than a certain amount. This year the repayment earning cap has been lowered. Graduates will start repaying their debt once they earn £25,000, down from £27,295.

*you only have to repay your student loan for a fixed number of years.  From this year the repayment period has been extended by 10 years: the debt will be wiped away after 40 years rather than 30.

What makes student loans expensive is the interest rates. The 2022 interest rate for student loans was expected to hit an eye-watering 12 per cent.  However, after protests from students, the government decided to cap the rate. The cap was 6.3 per cent until December, then 6.5 per cent until March 2023 and then 7.3 per cent from June. All these rates are higher than students have ever paid before.

Those graduates who earn the most will repay the least. That’s because the more you earn, the quicker you repay your debt, so less interest accrues.

*Because student loans charge interest some people feel unable to use them for university or college due to their faith or conscience. This is most common among some Muslims whose faith prohibits engagement with interest.  The current government has committed to introducing a student finance product with an alternative to interest payments. This new student finance product will be compatible with Islamic finance principles and known as alternative student finance.

*Cutting down on useless degrees

For some years the government has been collecting and publishing information about the future earnings of students from every course at every university.  This is called the Longitudinal Educational Outcomes data.  It shows that many students doing some courses at some universities have low salaries after they graduate.  They will never repay their loans and, given their large debts, it looks like it was a mistake for them to go to university at all.  Many of these students come from disadvantaged backgrounds, so it can seem that they have been misled into going to university as opposed to taking a paid job or an apprenticeship.

For this reason the government has announced its intention to limit the number of students on such courses.

*Students with nowhere to live

Another issue is accommodation. Some universities have expanded without being able to provide accommodation for new undergraduates close to the university. Some reacted by offering accommodation miles away, others by trying to persuade students to defer.

The problem is worst in Scotland, where the Scottish Government’s ban on rent rises has compounded the shortage. Last year some students at the University of St Andrews were advised to take accommodation in Dundee, a commute time of up to an hour each way.

*New types of degree

This year at the University of Buckingham we started a new undergraduate BA degree in Primary Education.  The course is online so students can have paid jobs.  We have 95 students in this first cohort.

It is certain that in the next year or two the government will initiate an apprenticeship-funded degree of this sort.  We will certainly offer that.

By Professor Barnaby Lenon
Dean of Education, University of Buckingham

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