Following an A-Level results day of unprecedented uncertainty, Cherwell has interviewed offer-holders about their experiences, some of whom missed out on a place due to the system employed to moderate grades. Final results, up to 40% of which were lowered by Ofqual, have provoked controversy across the country as students have been disadvantaged, many by circumstances beyond their control. Yesterday, the University published advice on a page of FAQs for Undergraduate Offer Holders which advised that applicants that successfully appealed their grades after the 13th August would miss out on a place this year, and instead be required to defer their entry to 2021.

In statements to The Times and Cherwell, the University of Oxford previously declared that it would use its existing clemency policy to mitigate “educational disruption” caused by the pandemic. A University spokesperson acknowledged that contextual factors may be used in admissions decisions “if the results show young people experiencing disadvantage were unfairly affected by the mechanism used to issue A-Level grades”.

Some students who missed their offer were rejected

However, some applicants have found themselves neglected by the University’s clemency system. One offer-holder, who missed their admissions offer by one grade and was not accepted into Keble College to study Geography, told Cherwell: “I was rejected today despite achieving AAA at a state comprehensive school. To add insult to injury, I was the first girl in my school’s history to receive an offer from Oxford so the rejection hurt our school community more generally”.

A petition calling to ‘Reverse Oxford University’s decision to take places away from state school near misses’ started by the student reached 2500 signatures in under a day. In it, she described her background: “I am a first generation student, come from a working class background and was selected for highly competitive Oxbridge outreach programmes.

“After completing the gruelling Oxford application process, sitting the admissions exam and going to Oxford for interview, when I received an offer at the university, I knew the last hurdle to overcome was to achieve the A*AA offer in my A-levels. Then Covid-19 struck and changed all of that; a computer algorithm would now decide my future.

“In all three of my A-level subjects I was downgraded from A*A*A* to AAA despite being ranked second. However, this wasn’t good enough for Oxford and I lost my place.”

The disparity between the final grades awarded to offer holders and what they were awarded by their teachers has been the subject of much focus nationally. One Oxford English tutor posted online, observing that: “I know I and every colleague I’ve talked to feel very sceptical about the strength of this year’s results versus what we know having met our candidates.”

Other students were accepted with lower grades

One applicant who missed their offer but was nevertheless accepted by their college told Cherwell: “I had a really difficult Year 13 and my grades tanked, and I was finally getting them back on track (but not high enough) when lockdown began. I thought I lost my chance.

“My college took all my extenuating circumstances into account, looked at my Year 12 end of year grades, and let me in even though I missed my offer. I’m so grateful.” The applicant had seen the AAB awarded by their teachers downgraded to an ABC in their final results.

Another student, who made their offer, said that they felt “massively advantaged by having moved to a grammar school [for] sixth form. The grading system worked to the point that one examination board ‘averages’ the results of all A-Level students in the country and downgraded a ridiculous proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

The issue of capacity and safety

In a statement, Worcester College confirmed that: “Many members of our college community and beyond have expressed their concern for the potential impact of yesterday’s A Level results on this year’s incoming students. At Worcester we made offers in 2020 to our most diverse cohort ever, and in response to the uncertainties surrounding this year’s assessment, we have confirmed the places of all our UK offer-holders, irrespective of their A-level results.”

There have been repeated calls for other colleges to follow suit. However, the capacity of Oxford colleges to operate safely in the context of the current pandemic has also been given as a reason for students missing out on places. One college emailed an applicant informing them that, despite their appeal against the grades which saw them miss their offer, “We are already over our maximum accommodation capacity, and it would be unsafe for us to offer any additional places. The health and safety of our students is of the utmost priority, and therefore we cannot agree to admit you this year even if your appeal is successful.”

The University of Oxford told Cherwell: “We intend to take every student who meets their offer grades as well as those where we consider there are mitigating circumstances for them missing their grade. As we do every year when grades are remarked, some students may be offered a deferred place. 

“Once we reach our maximum intake of undergraduates in 2020, we will have to defer entry to 2021 for any additional candidates who appeal successfully and whose place is then confirmed. Our primary concern must be the health and safety of our students, staff and community and it will not otherwise be possible for us to meet ongoing social-distancing restrictions and other challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

National responses

Students across the country have organised protests criticising the government’s approach to the results system and the downgrading of grades by just under 40%. Speaking to Cherwell, a representative from the protest group A Level U-Turn Now said: “I think that’s a massive failure on the part of universities, especially universities where they have such strict interview processes and have way more data, [they] are in a way better position than any other university to make that call”.

Protests against the grading system have been organised in Brighton, London and Liverpool, and organisers intend to deliver the message that “everyone should have their centre assessed grades”.
Members of the public have also been calling on the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge to honour the offers of state school students through the hashtag #HonourTheOffer after The Times reported that both universities rejected governmental calls to hold places for A-level students who are appealing their grades. Following calls by Professor Priyamvada Gopal, Fellow of Churchill College Cambridge, for the University to hold open places “as a matter of principle”, Oxford alumni and current students have created an open letter demanding the University make all 2020 offers unconditional.