University admissions in the UK raise a host of moral questions at the best of times, and this year clearly isn’t the best of times. Unable to sit in-person exams, students have been assessed on predictions, their past performance, and the historic performance of their school. Their educational fate rests on an algorithm.
With comprehensive school students’ grades adjusted down far more on average than those of private school students, it is clear that class, wealth, race, and regional disparities are playing their traditional roles in the British educational system.
University admissions are a good place to see these injustices at work. To see how, think of the struggle for university places in relation to another great British tradition – queueing. If there are limited seats at the cinema, queueing for them is fairer than a free-for-all when doors open. The closer you are to the front of the queue, the better your chances of getting a place. If the seats fill before you get in, at least you had a fair chance. So, too, with UK university admissions. Your A-level grades determine your place in the queue: the higher they are, the closer to the front you are and the more likely you are to gain entrance.
Let’s extend the analogy with what many Britons regard as a social sin: queue-jumping. The equivalent in the British educational system is private education. You pay a substantial fee for a number of years, which reliably translates into higher A-level grades, a better place in the ‘queue’, and a better chance of a place at the more prestigious universities with their superior resources and reputations. Indeed, the more you pay, the more your position is improved.
Privately educated pupils consistently outperform state school pupils in terms of places gained at the top-ranked UK universities. Research by the Sutton Trust revealed that just eight schools – all in the south-east of England, six private – filled 1,310 Oxbridge places over the years 2015–2017, compared with 1,220 from 2,900 other schools.
There are other factors involved, beyond grades, including the systems private schools have for providing better information and guidance on the university application process, the expectations and aspirations of students’ families, and better preparation of applicants for university interviews. But the link between fees, A-level grades, and university admissions is where the injustice of ‘queue jumping’ is clearest. The UK’s two most expensive private schools, Eton and Winchester (charging £14,167 and £13,903 per term, respectively, for 2020), are also by far the two most successful of all UK schools in terms of Oxbridge offers.
This year, the government algorithm for determining students’ grades is allowing even more queue-jumping. The Scottish Qualifications Authority amended 133,000 recommended grades, the vast majority of them downwards, with students from the most deprived backgrounds suffering the worst downgrading. The pass rate for those students was cut over 15 points, from 85.1% to 69.9%, while the corresponding cut for the best-off pupils was just 9.8 percentage points.
The story in England is similar. The proportion of A/A* grades have increased from 2019 across the board, but the increase is far greatest for privately educated students. Their grades increased 4.7 points, double that of secondary comprehensives and almost 3 times that of academies (1.7 points).
As a result, nearly half of all exams sat by private school students (48.6%) now result in an A or A* grade, compared to just one in five (21.8%) sat by comprehensive students.
It’s no good responding that ‘grades aren’t everything’, since they’re the key which unlocks the door to university which, in turn, unlocks further doors. Much of modern British life is now dominated by university graduates. Moreover, university provides enormous education, economic, and social goods and the better your university, the more and better those goods. For that reason, exclusion from participation in these aspects of life is deeply unjust. Such injustice is compounded when a state school students place in the university queue has been taken by someone who paid for it.
Some claim the system is meritocratic, since A-level exams test a student’s ability just before university admission. But a fair queue isn’t fair just because there’s no jostling when the doors open – there has to be no jumping right from the start. In fact, when there is prior queue jumping, the fair thing to do when doors open is to compensate: to bump up the queue those who were unfairly affected.
Defenders of the system point out that one can lead a good, full, and meaningful life without going to university, and so there need be no harm in denying state pupils places they otherwise would have obtained. The premise is obviously true, but the inference is poor. You don’t need to visit the cinema to live a fulfilled life, but that’s no justification for my stealing your place in the queue. One can be harmed by events, even if the resulting quality of one’s life is still good. It’s just no longer as good as it would have been.
What to do with A-level grades in a time of pandemic is not an easy question. It’s a truism that Covid-19 has exposed Britain’s entrenched inequalities. But downgrading a mark where the student hasn’t had the chance to prove themselves in an exam is unjust. But then it is also problematic simply to give all students higher grades. That’s like asking everyone in the queue to take one step forward: you’ll feel closer to the door but your place in the queue won’t change. The queue is already unjust because a small number have already jumped to the front.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with using an algorithm to moderate grades. In fact, here was a perfect opportunity to level up, by correcting for class discrimination inherent in the schooling system. This may seem like an anti-meritocratic argument, but ‘merit’ is not a precise concept and it isn’t clear that better grades go hand in hand with higher merit. A student with grades of AAB, from a school whose average grades are CCC, may well have actually demonstrated more merit than a student with AAA grades, from a school whose average grades are AAB. This point is especially pertinent to university admissions since universities use A-level grades as a proxy for intellectual ability. But, taken out of context, they are not an ideal predictor of how a student will fare at university. Indeed, it’s a strikingly neglected fact that privately educated students are less likely to achieve at least an upper second class degree than state school students with similar A-level grades.
Private schooling is university queue-jumping for the economically privileged. It should be abolished – but that is a complex proposal with serious educational, cultural, and ideological ramifications. For now, as we see the current cohort of students suffering the injustice of their diminished A-level grades, we can draw more specific conclusions. Universities must amend their admissions procedures to take greater note of contextual data.
Entry grades should be set based on taking average state school pupils as the norm. Offers should be lowered for students from the most deprived backgrounds – as they are at many universities. There also needs to be coordination across universities, which runs counter to the government-imposed culture of institutional competition. Class inequality in education has to be addressed nationally. Moderating this year’s students’ grades in a way that reduces, rather than exacerbates, inequality would be a good start.
Mark Jago is a professor of Philosophy at the University of Nottingham